Dallas — It’s hard to believe that Jonathan Larson’s critically acclaimed rock musical Rent first exploded onto the scene 20 years ago, going from off-Broadway premiere to Pulitzer Prize in less than 12 months. Since then there have been Tony awards, tours, a film adaptation, and even a Hollywood Bowl concert, cementing the show as a modern musical theater staple.
To celebrate the 20th anniverary of Rent, which is inspired by Puccini's opera La bohème, director Evan Ensign and his production team are taking things back to the show’s roots—with a few subtle surprises—for a national tour that began last week in Bloomington, Ind., and Lexington, Ky., and has its first multi-week stop at the Winspear Opera House, Sept. 20 through Oct. 2 as a part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series.
TheaterJones talked with Ensign about approaching the show with fresh eyes while still honoring what makes it so special.
TheaterJones: Rent is a show that so many people are familiar with. There’s a lot of buzz happening right now about how you’re changing up certain things a little bit.
Evan Ensign: Yes, we’ve done a lot of experimenting, and to a degree we’ve ended up even closer to the original than I would have thought. We didn’t want to change things just for the sake of doing it. We only wanted to change things if we could clear the story up in certain places. All through rehearsals we would try some different things, but a lot of the time we would end up saying, well, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
I think part of the thing for us that 20 years in, it’s sort of to pay homage to where it came from. The show hasn’t been around for a while touring, and it hasn’t been on Broadway [since it closed in 2008]. It has been revisited once, when Michael [Grief] directed it off-Broadway in a different version. That was well-accepted and did very well, and I think was a beautiful version of the show. But I think because that had happened, it made everybody want to pay tribute to the original.
How will this production be different than the previous runs?
This production does have new sound and lighting design, and the changes open up the opportunity to look at everything a little differently. So it’s been quite joyous and fun.
Sound can be a challenge when touring since you’re not always able to make things work the same in every location. But because we’re a rock ’n’ roll show, our volume is more than other shows, and we can carry in a slightly different way, so I think we’re kind of sitting pretty in the sound world right now. With the advances in technology—not even 20 years ago, but just six years ago to when the last tour was out—the speakers are so much better, the subwoofers are so much better that you can tour in a smaller package with so much more range than you were able to because the technology has improved so much.
I think for me—and I’m in my 50s, so I grew up during the actual time period of Rent, I was around for that—the most interesting part of this one, and the thing that has made it the most different from previous companies, is how young the company is. They’ve always been young, but there’s not a current Broadway run of Rent for them to go look at. So they’re not basing performances we had in rehearsals on anything they’re going and seeing at night.
What’s it like working with such a young cast?
AIDS is a very different thing now than it was in the mid-90s, and in talking to them about how to make the show current and contemporary, it’s really quite fascinating what they see in it that they relate to today that’s different than what we had been looking at 20 years ago—9/11, politics, and world events of today. I have two performers in the show who were not born when the show opened. It’s really part of the joyousness as you have conversations about character and events.
You know one of the things I very much have to work on is sort of giving them a sense of what AIDS was then because of the mortality issues that exist in the show. Rent will always be of a period because as soon as the cocktail came along, living with HIV and AIDS became such a different thing, and is a completely different thing now.
These kids didn’t grow up fearing that their friends were going to be dead in a year, or that they were going to be dead in a year, and so you really do have to teach it because that’s a huge crux of what the play is about. You can’t know that you’re going to be one of the lucky ones that makes it past. And you know, I love that Rent talks about that, about people living with, rather than dying from, disease. There are still so many things that can take us away, and all of those messages in the show I think are still so poignant.
Do you think it’s a rarity that a show set in such a specific time period can transcend that to get its messages across in the same powerful way that it did when it premiered?
You know, there are the brilliant shows. West Side Story still manages to pull that off. I really hope that you’ll find that when you see it, you’re going into something that, yes, you do know it, but the enthusiasm to tell the story that this current company has is sort of mind boggling. Their energy is so fantastic. I’ve done a lot of companies of Rent around the world, and usually there are one or two people who you kind of go, “oh, come on, give me a little bit more.” But this company I’m almost always going, “okay, you can hold back just a little bit in here.”
They’re so committed to it and what it says, and I do honestly think that is because when we were rehearsing in New York they made it their own. They just always had to be coming at it with what they can bring to the table, and we were grabbing that and using it. So I think that they feel very much an ownership in the best of ways, and certainly a commitment because they know that they’re talking about something that has the potential to change lives.
You’ve been involved in so many different versions of the show. What has been your biggest surprise this time around?
One thing I never thought about is that there is this whole new audience of people who have never seen Rent. They don’t know it. The fact that it’s going to this whole new generation, truly a generation that has heard of it, maybe, but doesn’t know the show…in a way that has surprised me.
You just think everybody knows it, because it’s one of those groundbreaking shows in the rock musical world. I think before us, it was Hair—that’s 1969, that’s a long time! And then since us, really, In the Heights and Hamilton, Lin-Manuel [Miranda] twice. And it’s because of this show, and this show was able to happen because of Hair. You think about those things, and you get shocked that people don’t have it in their vernacular in the same way.
What do you think makes Rent so unique?
I think it’s because it’s about themes that we all relate to. You don’t have to have lived it all, but finding love, trying to figure out how we fit in the world, and how we make family—I think it’s something that we all have to go through and discover as we come of age.
You know, when we did all of our tech and previews up at Indiana University, in Bloomington, the majority of the people who came had never seen Rent. They only knew the album, but they didn’t even really from that get the whole story. They were weeping, and moved, and you just realize that wow, it still has this impact. Thank you, Jonathan.
ATTPAC and TheaterJones are co-hosting an Industry Night for Rent on Tuesday, Sept. 27. The show starts at 7:30 p.m., but there will a reception area for people with Industry Night lanyards (given at the check-in table in the Winspear lobby) before the show and at intermission, and then after the show, an after-party with members of the cast, a DJ, prizes (tickets and swag), specialty drinks and more. There are discounted tickets to Rent Industry Night ($30 or $65), which you can buy here. There will also be a guest appearance by local drag performer Raquel Blake.