Updated: Sep 7
An Intimate Reimagining Of A Groundbreaking Musical Theater Classic
By Shannon Cudd It is hard to overestimate the power of “Rent” in musical theater history. This groundbreaking rock opera opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996 and ran until September 7, 2008 playing 5,123 performances. Based on Giacomo Puccini's opera “La Bohème,” “Rent” follows a group of ragtag artist friends fighting to create and survive. It launched the careers of Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Adam Pascal, Taye Diggs, and more. Sadly, its creator Jonathan Larson would die at the age of 35 of an aortic dissection from undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. The night before his passing, Larson attended a dress rehearsal and was interviewed by the New York Times. It appeared as if his six years of hard work and dreams of being a Broadway composer might finally come true. The cast and creative team picked up his mantle and carried the project to completion, even famously performing the day after his death in what was supposed to be a simple staged reading in order to compensate for grief. Instead, the cast broke out into choreography during the act one finale “La Vie Bohème” continuing this for the rest of the show. “Rent” quickly became a phenomenon. Director Matthew McCray caught “Rent” fever in college. After his friends turned him onto the exciting new musical, he flew to New York to see the original cast on Broadway (going as far as to camp out on the street for 22 hours in order to score tickets). He even caught the key Anthony Rapp threw into the audience. Casey Long, the Managing Director at Chance Theater remembers hearing about the show in high school. He was skeptical about it at first, but once he heard the music he fell in love with the story and the characters. Both men strongly identify with the hardships of the struggling artist journey but cannot imagine devoting their lives to anything else.
According to Long, the Chance is always searching for shows that have “made an impact in the past, can add to the conversation, and are ripe for reinvention.” They love stripping down large scale productions such as “Rent” to fit their intimate space. Just ask McCray, who directed last season’s “Next to Normal” at the Chance. The Tony Award-winning musical is usually done in a larger theater space, but his intimate approach allowed audiences to focus more on the family’s story, which resulted in a sold-out run and the 2023 OCTG Theatre Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical. McCray has previously directed two other productions of “Rent” in collegiate settings and is very excited how Chance’s venue and thrust space will impact and intensify the story. When tackling “Rent” one has to accept the fact that the show is a period piece. “It's almost 30 years old,” McCray explains. “It's a shocker, right? It is a time capsule. You can't just contemporize it, it wouldn’t make sense.”
This does not mean that the themes explored in the show are not relevant to modern audiences. “Themes of compassion, love, acceptance, and poverty are still just as resonant,” McCray muses. “Rent” explores the AIDS epidemic during the 90s, a time when many people were dying of this relatively new disease that baffled the medical community that could only desperately try to keep up. “Rent” asks hard questions about facing death and uncertainty. “What do you do now,” ponders McCray. “Do you live life harder? Do you escape into your fear and anger about it? How do you deal with that?”
“Rent” is not all doom and gloom but also a celebration of life. The act two opener “Seasons of Love” honors the tiny precious moments of human existence that enrich all of our lives. If McCray were to write his own lyrics to the beloved song it would celebrate his dog, Southern California weather, his friends, partner, and community. Long’s lyrics would highlight “the private moments with your partner that no one else gets to see. The ones where their hair is all messed up or before they've had a chance to brush their teeth.”
When asked why audiences should see this show McCray answered: “It is a joy. It is a hoot. The music's amazing, the story’s compelling, and the characters are lovely.” He also explained his new take, unique to this iteration: “Our production will also be leaning into Mark's documentary a bit more. That will definitely make this production feel and look a little different.” “‘Rent’ is one of those shows that gives you so much enjoyment and catharsis while you watch it,” Long muses. “It's going to have you jumping up and down in your seats. It's gonna have you laughing, it's gonna have you bawling, it's gonna take you through a whole spectrum of emotions. It's one of those stories that sticks with people. The story of empathy and love is something that will impact how you move forward with your life.”
Shannon Cudd is a writer, actor, and theater lover in Orange County, California.
“Rent” Chance Theater
@ Bette Aitken theater arts Center
5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA
July 21 - August 20, 2023
(888) 455-4212, www.chancetheater.com