Before 50,000 fans hoping to win a digital lottery for $10 Hamilton tickets crashed the show’s website, before standing room at Book of Mormon, before Avenue Q’s foul-mouthed puppets gave cheerful voice to Gen X anxieties about sex, aging, and life’s purpose, there was another musical that powerfully captured the spirit of the times with its essential message about love and loss and what it meant to be alive a particular moment in our city’s—and our nation’s—history.
That show, of course, was RENT—Jonathan Larson’s reimagining of Puccini’s La Bohème as a story about a group of artists facing addiction, eviction, and AIDS in New York’s Alphabet City in 1989-90. Writing in the musical vernacular of the time, Larson channeled rage and sadness into rock ballads about disease, gentrification, and heartache, but his anthems celebrating friendship, devotion, and joy in the moment (“five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes...”) were the ones that became the iconic anthems of the era. In the play, which premiered 100 years after Puccini’s opera, the death of Angel, a sweetly flamboyant drag performer from the streets, becomes not just an occasion for mourning but also a lesson in how to live as though there’s “no day but today.”
RENT’s message about grief and resilience took on added poignancy when, after doctors failed to diagnose the cause of the chest pain that landed him in two different emergency rooms, Larson dropped dead of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the show’s opening at the New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th St. in January 1996. On the night he died, Larson told the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, “It's not how many years you live, but how you fulfill the time you spend here. That's sort of the point of the show.”
On April 29, the show transferred to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, where it ran for 12 years, earning a Pulitzer Prize, four Tony awards (including best musical), and the devotion of the “Rentheads”—young people who queued up outside the box office in the hopes of scoring $20 front-row rush tickets the theater set aside for anyone willing to camp out for them. (New then, similar practices are now common for shows that routinely sell out—hence Hamilton’s daily #Ham4Ham sidewalk preshow and lottery.) RENT spawned several national and international tours, a 2005 film, a 2011 off-Broadway revival, and a Stevie Wonder cover of “Seasons of Love,” but in the end its crowning achievement may have been ushering in a new era of musical theater fandom. Suddenly, Broadway was cool again—and heartbreakingly relevant. Billy Joel, David Bowie, and Ralph Fiennes were spotted at RENT in Broadway previews. It’s hard to imagine a pop-culture phenomenon like Hamilton—whose cast album hit no. 1 on Billboard’s rap charts—without it.
Now, as RENT enters its 20th(!) anniversary year, Tisch Drama is performing it for the first time in NYU’s history. In honor of that milestone, NYU Stories talked with director Kenneth Noel Mitchell, Head of Acting for Tisch’s New Studio on Broadway, about the show’s enduring appeal, and took a trip to the University Archives in search of relics from NYU’s own 1990s confrontation with the twin crises of AIDS and drugs in a rapidly changing New York.
Q&A with Director Kenneth Noel Mitchell
Why RENT, and why now?
The world has changed so much [since 1996] but we still live in a culture of fear. We always encounter different crises, whether it’s the AIDS crisis or terrorism. I wanted to remind us of the message of the show, which goes beyond the AIDS virus and celebrates this idea of how to survive in the face of fear and how to thrive in the face of fear. Plus, RENT had not been done at NYU, even though we're only two blocks away from where it started!
Do you think the threat of terrorism has replaced AIDS as the number one fear of most New Yorkers? Are there others?
Although people are now surviving and thriving with HIV, it’s still a disease that’s taking lives and taking lives unfairly. There’s not enough education about that. And what’s the next epidemic? Fear is universal, and the play is about how you can either choose fear or choose life. Right now there’s the fear of terrorism—the fear of being obliterated—which politicians use to their advantage. Fear hampers our day-to-day—how we travel, how we connect to people, how we identify people. Fear gets in the way of our appreciating the life that we have. Any time we make a choice based on fear, we stop celebrating life. So whether it’s terrorism, 9/11, Ebola, mosquitos [and Zika]...we cannot give in to that.
How did RENT change what audiences came to expect from musicals?
In my program notes I talk about Liz Swados, who wrote Runaways [a musical about children living on the city streets after running away from home], and I can't help but think she inspired people like Jonathan Larson. I think RENT was a gritty show for Broadway that dealt with some really uncomfortable topics, like homelessness, HIV, and different races coexisting. It wasn’t “the African-American play,” or “the Polish play,” or “the Asian play”—it really brought together all these worlds in a way that was exciting to see. It probably freed up the idea of what the musical had to be and what the musical could be. Now we have Hamilton, which pays homage to RENT but also to hip-hop and classical theater and Shakespeare—it’s taken a different step, which I think is great.
The East Village and Alphabet City have changed a lot in 20 years. Is there a neighborhood left in New York City where artists can live “la vie Bohème” as Larson depicted it?
Bed-Stuy? Williamsburg was, years ago. But artists and people who live this way are constantly being pushed further and further out of the city. That’s one of the things from this show that we want to remind people of: Many of these people are now the homeless.
What did you think it was important to communicate to your young cast about life (and death) in the early ’90s?
The cast did a lot of research assignments, and we had guest speakers come in—Rodney Hicks, an actor from the original production, Bernie Telsey, who was the casting director, and a friend of mine who runs an organization that deals with AIDS worldwide. Before rehearsals started they read On Death and Dying, which is about the stages of grief, and they watched a documentary called Surviving the Plague. We also watched a couple of movies in rehearsal just to drop them into that world. By 1996, things were somewhat under control, with the invention of [the antiviral medication] AZT—but even then AZT had a lot of hard effects on the body, and people were still dying. When the HIV virus first broke out there was all this misinformation, and hospitals would not take patients—I had friends who were denied care. It was a very turbulent time. I was the theater manager at the Public Theater in the early ’90s, and I can’t tell you how many memorials I planned.
The LGBT rights landscape has changed a lot too. Does the show come across differently now in the context of legal same-sex marriage and increasing visibility for gay and trans performers?
Well, Angel isn’t transgender—he’s a male that dresses up as a woman. But yes, gender identity has become so much more fluid, and men portraying drag queens on Broadway have become so much more common, in Kinky Boots and Hairspray and so on. And yes, we do have gay rights—but for how long? With this upcoming election, everything could be reversed.
I think the show is about love. And death. So for me it’s less about shock value and more about the love stories in this play—the relationships and the complications of two people with a disease loving each other. But it goes beyond that: fear of commitment, fear of being alone—it's so much more than just the HIV virus. All these characters have other fears, like how to retain your dignity. I am fascinated by the homeless people that I see in the Village now. There’s this gentleman that walks around with such dignity. How do you retain that, when you don’t have a home?
Over its 12-year Broadway run, RENT became famous for its diehard fans—people who saw the show over and over, memorized lyrics, and camped out for discounted tickets. What makes a musical that kind of musical?
I think it’s when people connect to somebody’s story. They see someone that makes them feel less alone, whether it’s Angel, Mimi, Roger, or Mark. All of these characters are on the fringe, but they all come together. So I think anyone who’s ever felt alone or afraid in some way connects to these characters.
How does this production of RENT differ from previous ones? Anything new for the “Rentheads” to discuss?
[The original RENT director] Michael Greif’s direction is iconic, transcendent, really—he did such a brilliant and elegant job depicting that play. Certainly this is my own spin on that—I didn’t want to steal another director’s work, and I wanted to express my own thoughts. So this is an all white set that we project images onto. It’s interesting and I think it’s different. We tried to honor the idea that the character Mark is making a film, a documentary. The projections help create not really a realistic world, but the essence of location, the essence of event. There’s also this idea that the experiences we encounter are tattooed on us. Using projection is saying all these things that we endure are tattooed on our spirit—they’re a part of us. Angel is somewhere on us.