A SoCal spin on Jonathan Larson’s cult-classic
By Libby Nicolay
“We’re living in America
At the end of the millennium”
At the time, New York was turbulent. Reagan had just left office, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was still ravaging through the city, while New Yorkers were recovering from a devastating economic recession that had left working class renters impoverished and homeless. A bohemian subculture was growing in New York’s underground that began sweeping a generation. The movement was led by young artists and free thinkers who were coming of age during a time when rent strikes and political resistance were taking place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1996, the late, great Larson took to capturing the zeitgeist of the time, and he did so with RENT, a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll-type musical that thrust its way right to the forefront of the musical theater world. No one had any idea what an impact this unlikely show would have on an entire generation, and what a ripple effect it would create in the theater industry. Costa Mesa Playhouse is proud to be bringing the hit rock-opera to life once again, this time in a bold, new way.
Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, RENT is Larson’s celebrated 1996 reimagining, set during the height of New York’s counterculture movement and the ravaging, ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. The story follows a group of friends and struggling artists in the bohemian Alphabet City, living in poverty and dying of AIDS. RENT was daring in its time for doing something not seen before in musical theatre; its rock-anthem score and bold display of drug use, homelessness, drag queens and queer culture on stage were a stark departure from the typical 20th-century American musical. Yet, the show was a raging success. Not only did RENT win a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards, but it revolutionized musical theatre and appealed to a generation of young, bohemian “RENT-heads”, who would camp outside the theatre in droves just to see people like themselves depicted on stage. It ran on Broadway for 12 years.
RENT left a cultural legacy that has continued on and inspired a new generation of bold, contemporary musical theatre - that which values representation and giving voices to those overlooked or cast aside. Now, over 25 years after its premiere, the musical is finding its place amidst the younger generations once again, in an America that regrettably parallels the diseased and politically tense America of the ‘80s. This resurgence of the cult-classic and renewed interest in Jonathan Larson’s life and legacy has culminated in anniversary tours, live televised versions, and a new film adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical Tick, Tick…Boom!. This same energy is also what has led regional theaters like Costa Mesa Playhouse to revisit the iconic show now and consider the way today’s young generation of artists are finding themselves in the story, too.
Costa Mesa Playhouse’s own Michael Serna will direct the production. Serna himself bore witness to the initial success of RENT and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic as a young actor in the mid-’90s. Despite the show’s widespread popularity and its complete embodiment of everything ‘90s, Serna wanted to take a look at the script with fresh eyes and bring about it a new take - one that will honor Larson’s original but also allow today’s audiences to experience the story in a new way and feel something new. Serna spoke about the challenge of staging this show for the modern day, and with actors who may not have even been alive to know the culture of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“I knew I wasn’t going to [find] performers who were going to understand the HIV crisis in the ‘90s, or understand what the vibe was in New York in this pre-Giuliani era, before 9/11,” he said. “So, to me it’s about, what are the things that are iconically the ‘90’s?” The show’s rich and lively New York setting played such a huge role in its ability to resonate so deeply with its Broadway fans. Serna wanted to encapsulate this idea when staging it for Costa Mesa audiences. He wanted to evoke the essence of late ‘80s-New York that the original captured so well, but with the west coast vibe of a ‘90s-era coffee club. “In this world, we’ve got a place where local artists would get up and sing a song, but they might also do poetry, they might also put on a play. [It’s] a world that I remember very vividly in the ‘90s,” he recalls.
Orange County at the time had its own evolving counterculture. From the punk rock scene of OC’s suburbia came iconic bands like Sublime and No Doubt. They introduced a sort of cutting-edge vibe to Orange County, which had long been known for its ruby-red conservatism. Serna moved to the area in the mid-’90s and immediately felt the vibe as a young artist. He recalled performing plays in local coffee shops when he wasn’t on a theatre stage. He hopes to recreate this familiar west coast energy, especially within the production’s casting and set design.
Serna has set out to bring his own point-of-view to the show, but specifically to the parts that have become routine when it comes to staging and casting RENT. Take the rousing Act 1 finale, “La Vie Boheme”, for example. Typically, the number is staged with the cast dancing on tables in a cafe and celebrating “the bohemian life” as they spout off all the cultural references of the time. “I’ve only ever seen it done the way it was done originally, with two tables, [with] everybody lined up,” Serna said. “It’s always staged the same way, and understandably. It works. But we’re not doing it that way.” Serna is excited to reveal the new choices and knows that, whether audiences love them or reject them, they will still be authentic and unique to this version.
Although sometimes it seems like the world has changed so much since the ‘90s, and RENT at times has felt like something of a relic, the story’s most pressing themes don’t feel distant at all. Today’s young people know what it’s like to come of age in a scared and angry world, where disease is rampant and the possibility of death is around every corner. We’ve learned firsthand from the last few years that life is tenuous, that our uniqueness matters, and that seeking community and cherishing every moment is what’s most important.
The characters in RENT have almost everything they know stripped away from them, but instead of falling victim to it, they grow closer together and choose to measure their life in love instead of fear. Ultimately, the story is about seeking community and living for today - themes that many today are still longing to hear.
As the saying goes in RENT, there’s no day but today. We don’t know how much time we may have, but we know we have right now, and there is no better time to hear this story’s message than right now. With a 5-piece live rock band on stage and many nods to SoCal’s own bohemia, this production promises something for all ages to enjoy. Come and rock out with the company of RENT at Costa Mesa Playhouse, playing this month.
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County and beyond.
Costa Mesa Playhouse
661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
July 7 - July 23, 2023
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com