On June 1, an era will end. “Rent,” one of the most popular musicals in modern American history, is ending its Broadway run after 12 years.
I recently went to New York for the first time and had the privilege of seeing “Rent” on Broadway, a good reminder of why this show is so special.
First, “Rent” has brought young people back into the world of theater.
When the show premiered in 1996, Broadway was, by and large, dominated by long-running plays that did little to address relevant social issues and were increasingly expensive to attend.
Like “Hair” a generation earlier, “Rent” brought a vibrant rock score to some of the difficulties faced by its young, urban audience: AIDS, poverty, drug abuse and, more broadly, the struggle to define oneself in the face of an increasingly consumerist, commercially driven culture.
As The New York Times put it before the show even made it onto Broadway, “Rent” was “a surprise triumph (that) seems to have rekindled faith in the American musical when many in the theater business, particularly younger people, believed it had reached an artistic dead end.”
By offering a block of $20 front-row seats to those who lined up the day of the show, the producers also made “Rent” very affordable, thus creating a new Broadway phenomenon: “Rent”-Heads, dedicated young fans who routinely lined up or camped out for hours, and sometimes days, to get a chance at tickets, seeing the production again and again.
As one of the show’s producers put it upon the transition to Broadway, “Some of the naysayers have warned us that our audience doesn’t go to Broadway . . . they haven’t gone to Broadway because there hasn’t been anything to see. We think they’ll come to Broadway for this.”
Indeed they did, and in sufficient numbers to keep “Rent” among the most popular shows on Broadway for more than a decade.
“Rent” also is special because it is one of the few popular productions that goes beyond simple entertainment, even beyond being thought-provoking, to be uplifting and inspiring.
This is a point of contention among those who have not seen the show but are familiar with the characters’ descriptions.
They reason: How could a show focused on a 19-year-old, heroin-addicted stripper and a transvestite street performer, both of whom are suffering from AIDS, possibly qualify as inspiring, let alone uplifting?
But while those descriptions make convenient sound bites, “Rent” has never traded on the bizarreness of its characters.
On the contrary, one of the points of the show is that when you get by the social awkwardness of the roles they play, the characters in “Rent” are fundamentally normal human beings, trying to maintain their identity and dignity in the face of difficult circumstances, coping with loss and struggle, and relying on love to carry them through it all.
Fundamentally, it is a show about embracing who you are, standing by your friends, never giving up on love, and living life as though there is “no day but today” instead of being choked by regrets.
Regardless of where we are on the ideological spectrum, I believe those are ideals we can all agree on.
Let’s hope the end of “Rent” on Broadway will mean we soon see local stagings of this profound and powerful piece of theater.
Teen columnist Colin Killick is a senior at Basis Tucson High School. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org