The grit and grime of late-20th century New York City has been romanticized a lot lately, from the prostitutes, pimps and pornagraphers of 1970s Midtown in David Simon and George Pelecanos’ HBO series The Deuce to LCD Soundsystem’s ode to the pre-Giuliani clean-up city, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” But there was no nostalgia to Rent when Jonathan Larson debuted the show at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1993.
Larson was living la vie boheme when he wrote Rent, and the New York around him, still full of struggling artists like his friends and collaborators on the play, was undergoing a rapid transformation. Larson died unexpectedly from an aortic dissection the night before the show’s Off Broadway opening. But the musical, currently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary tour, remains vital as cities like San Francisco, L.A. and even Brooklyn are pricing out their artists to make way for tech conglomerates.
The tour began it’s nine-day Atlanta stop at The Fox Theatre last with a young, mostly unknown, but abundantly talented cast. With the rock band relocated from the pit to stage left, the energy that shook up Broadway two decades ago is still there. The play follows a pair of roommates, Mark (Sammy Ferber) and Roger (Kaleb Wells), and their friends and lovers in an old East Village building and its neighboring tent-city parking lot. Inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème, the musical is about both the importance of having a loving community and the struggle of the poor in an unforgiving city at the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic.
Rent handles the latter adeptly, neither ignoring the different struggles of the bohemian poor and the truly destitute (in one scene, a homeless woman getting harassed by the cops yells at well-meaning Mark for filming the event) nor the realities of living in a crime-ridden neighborhood (Collins’ beating in the first act). Still, the overwhelming message is one of costs of gentrification and the way that society tries to compromise the soul of the artist.
And there are few celebrations of underground artistry as good as “La Vie Bohème,” the first act closer with friends gathered around a coffeehouse table. Lyndie Moe, a 19-year-old Kansan in her first national role, shines as Maureen Johnson, a performance artist who leads the protests for those in the tent city facing eviction. It’s a showstopper of a song and the highlight of the night.
But props also have to be given to ensemble member Alana Cauthen, whose solo in “Seasons of Love” may be the best vocal performance I’ve heard all year.
With more than two decades of national, regional and local productions, as well as a film adaptation starring Anthony Rapp (the original Mark), the audience brings its own expectations of Rent, a play that redefined what Broadway could be and inspired a new generation of playwrights and composers including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Actor’s Express produced their own version of the play in Atlanta just two and a half years ago, and the small, in-the-round theatre gave the proceedings an intimacy that, in the tragic final act, shook you to your core (aided by an unforgettable waif of an Angel). If this version was just shy of that on an emotional level, it made up for it in pure spectacle. The set fit the themes perfectly, and each actor made their character their own. Here the tension in the three romantic relationships takes the lead, along with the importance of living in the moment.
With the current political climate in this country and with economic inequality steadily rising, there’s no reason to think that Rent won’t feel just as topical on its 30th anniversary tour. “You’re living in America / Leaver your conscience at the tone / And when you’re living in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re what you own.”
But even more than that, it’s a reminder that no matter how bad things get, it’s the people around you and the love they offer who are more important than any movement or political divide.