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"Rent" keeps paying off

By Carey Checca

DECEMBER 21, 1998: 

In Puccini’s La Boheme, an aspiring Parisian playwright falls in love with Mimi, a tubercular seamstress, who eventually dies. The two meet when she knocks on his door to ask him to light her candle and then accidentally drops her key. In Rent, which opens this week at The Orpheum, the setting changes to New York City’s East Village, the playwright becomes Roger, a musician trying to write a great song, and Mimi is an exotic dancer who needs a candle lit after the electricity goes out, and instead of a key, she drops her stash. Rent’s Mimi is brought back from the edge of death by Roger’s “Hey babe, don’t die – you ain’t heard my song yet.”

Rent opened to raves for its portrayal of eight friends who are struggling to make it in New York City’s East Village. Mark, the narrator of the show, is a documentary filmmaker more interested in recording life than participating in it. His recent ex Maureen and her new lover Joanne are putting together a performance-art protest of police treatment of area homeless. Meanwhile, Tom Collins, a philosophical computer whiz who was fired from MIT and now is homeless, is falling in love with Angel Schaunard, a street musician and drag queen. Benny, Mark and Roger’s friend-turned-yuppie-landlord, is locking the two of them out of their apartment. As if that’s not enough, half of the characters are HIV+ and attending Life Support meetings.

Though unlike the Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hammerstein revivals now playing on Broadway, Rent speaks to audiences. “It’s talking about love regardless of color or sexual orientation,” says Cristina Fadale, who plays Maureen in the Benny Touring Company of Rent, one of two casts that travel the country. “It’s about people who love each other so much that they go through all of this together. I think it’s a universal message.”

It’s such a universal message that Rent played well even in ultra-conservative Salt Lake City.

“We were really nervous about how the show would be received there,” Fadale explains. “I remember this little old woman who came and said she really loved the show.”

When asked what she thinks is the most important scene in the show, Fadale chooses the eulogies in the reprise.

“It’s right after Angel died and it’s each of these people coming forward and saying what they loved about this person. It touches me every night. It gets to the real core of the being.”

In Chicago, where the show ran a few months, young Rent fans were often seen camping out in front of the theatre during windy Chicago days to buy the prized $20 seats near the edge of the stage. Many bragged of how many times they had seen the show.

“There would be people I’d see every night,” recalls Fadale. “It’s kind of neat that people are so into the show.”

Critic’s thoughts on the show have varied from utmost praise and thanksgiving that an exciting show attractive to a young crowd was coming to Broadway to gripes that the music is reminiscent of a 1970s jukebox. Many hoped Rent’s success would be the rebirth of original, new-on-Broadway shows, though the appearances of revivals and stage adaptations of movies hasn’t slowed.

Few critics can mention Rent without telling the tragic story of Jonathan Larson. Helped by a Richard Rogers Award of $50,000 and the shaping of Larson’s collage of songs and characters into a play by director Michael Greif, Larson worked five years to bring his vision to the stage. The evening before opening night, the 35-year-old Larson died from an aortic aneurysm. The musical went on to an enthusiastic reception and quick move to Broadway. Bloomingdale’s even opened a Rent boutique, where couture imitated thrift-store chic.

Larson’s story and the success of Rent has become legend.

Fadale says Larson’s message of love, struggle, and success is clear. “It’s a gift to everyone,” she continues. “And especially at the holiday season, it’s nice to see something that was such a big part of Jonathan’s life. And to be able to carry that on is so wonderful for me.”

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