Whether on stage or screen, pop culture is familiar with and influenced by the ‘90s Broadway hit “RENT.” For more than two decades, the rock musical has made itself known as more than a collection of catchy songs and choreography—but a bright light which shines upon ongoing social justice issues and an AIDS epidemic our country faced in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Even Lin Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the overnight musical sensation “Hamilton,” cites “RENT” as one of his biggest inspirations. Though Wilmington has seen its iterations via community theatre, the Broadway tour is finally making its way to CFCC’s Wilson Center for two shows on June 2.
After its debut in January of 1996, the musical rapidly gained a cult following and garnered critical acclaim by earning a Pulitzer Prize for drama and three Tonys. Though set in the early ‘90s, it still carries impact and relevancy in the world as the LGBTQIA community continues to fight for equal rights across the nation; states (including our own city) continue to face a growing opioid crisis; and parts of the country still see AIDS and drug abuse as issues of morality rather than access to healthcare.
The “RENT” 20th-anniversary tour has been traveling from theater to theater since 2016. Logan Farine joined the production in the summer of 2017. He started as an understudy but took over one of the lead roles as Roger—a musician struggling to pay rent with his friend and filmmaker Mark—in February 2018.
“It’s about love and music and being around people you care about,” Farine says of the production. “Roger’s goal is to write one great song before he dies. He meets this girl, Mimi, who reminds him of his ex, and, well, it all goes from there.”
Based off of Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Bohème,” “RENT” is riddled with characters that forge emotional connections through music, carefully choreographed dance and incredible, albeit painful, stories. While the musical follows Mimi and Roger’s blossoming love affair, “RENT” showcases the lives of other struggling artists who are learning about life’s hard hits and upswings in young adulthood. Roommates Mark and Roger, along with their cast of friends, struggle to find their way in the world against the backdrop of the East Village of New York and the AIDS crisis.
Though “RENT” premiered a century after “La Bohème,” show writer Jonathan Larson (who unexpectedly passed away the day before “RENT” made its worldwide premiere) drew similar parallels while modernizing the work. “La Bohéme” showcased young adults—a painter, a seamstress, and a poet—in a turn-of-the-century Paris, all of whom were struggling with poverty and Tuberculosis. Larson traded in Paris for New York, the tragedy of consumption for the AIDS crisis, and the characters’ occupations into songwriter, exotic dancer and filmmaker. However, he kept the complexities and multifaceted fronts of each—from a passionate, protesting, bisexual Maureen to a transgender HIV/AIDS victim, Angel.
He also drew from his own life. Much like Roger, Larson sacrificed a stable life for his art, often waiting tables and moonlighting at bars while he wrote “RENT.” He watched his friends and colleagues die of AIDS, struggle with the same poverty he faced, and shoot up in alleyways. A coming-of-age story, his characters face life’s trials and tribulations head on. “There’s not one particular person I feel more drawn to than another in this show,” Farine explains. “I feel for all of them, I relate to all of them in different ways—I think that’s human.”
Part of why Farine adores the show is in the execution of its music. It showcases more than mere classic showtunes he was used to with stage performances—though, his first time watching “RENT” was the 2005 film version, directed by Chris Columbus. “It was cool, different—because I had never realized that musicals could be like that … rock ‘n’ roll,” Farine notes.
The one person most connected to the music in the show is Farine’s Roger. He is both a fan favorite and a driving force. A former member of a decently famous band, Roger leaves the life of fame and fortune for the sake of art. After losing the first love of his life to suicide, his entire focus shifts to writing “Your Eyes.”
“[Roger’s] whole motivation is to not sell out,” Farine says. As he struggles to write an epic ballad, Roger becomes less egocentric as a rockstar and more centered toward making something that moves and transcends.
The story’s soundtrack has become iconic for RENTheads, featuring ballads and intense rock songs, but also for theatre, culture and society. From the title track to the timeless “Seasons of Love” to “La Vie Boheme,” which Farine says is the most impactful, the music offers as much character as the protagonists. “RENT” is a rock-opera of sorts, wherein there is more singing than dialogue, and most of the major plot-points are conveyed through song—each one bringing audiences closer to characters, their realities but most importantly their humanity.