“Hamilton” is the Broadway musical that people are swooning over and paying top dollar to see. But 20 years ago, the musical to see was the new, cutting-edge “Rent,” which tackled tough topics on stage,
Jonathan Larson’s era-defining, Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of starving artists living with HIV/AIDS in late 1980s New York City remains a powerful piece of musical theater — even for young fans and performers that weren’t alive when “Rent” premiered in 1996.
This year, there’s a 20th anniversary national tour of the musical, with two stops in Maine, including the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono on Friday, Nov. 4. But the musical also is now a popular choice for high schools around the country, including Orono High School in Maine. Though a few of the more explicit songs in the musical have been altered or cut, the big themes and issues tackled in the show remain the same.
Cami Carter, Orono High School musical theater director, chose that version of “Rent” for the school’s fall musical specifically because of those themes and issues. The school’s production of “Rent,” co-directed by Carter and Daniel Perkins, is set for Oct. 27-29 at the high school.
“We wanted to do something weighty. We wanted to talk about issues that are going on all around us,” said Carter. “Big ideas, like how do we fit in? How do we accept others, and ourselves? And then more specific things, like homelessness and addiction and sexuality. This is a piece of theater that allows us to talk about all those things.”
To do that, Carter enlisted the help of Health Equity Alliance, the Bangor-based public health organization that joined forces in 2014 with the Down East AIDS Network.
Maggie Campbell, director of communication and development for the organization, held workshops with the cast to help provide some information and context to the many issues depicted in the play. Between LGBT characters, drug addiction, homelessness and poverty, there’s a lot to talk about.
“‘Rent’ is a great show, but what these characters go through is very different from the reality today,” said Campbell. “We provided some education on all these issues — risk factors on HIV/AIDS and what it’s like to live with HIV here in rural Maine, addiction in our communities, what race and gender and sexuality have to do with socioeconomic status. We looked at those things in the show, and then talked about what the reality is for people here in Maine today.”
Campbell focused on the ways in which people stigmatize others who might be poor, gay or trans, struggling with addiction, or living with HIV/AIDS.
“I definitely started thinking about stigma. There’s a lot of negative talk going around about a lot of what is in the show,” said Chana Wingard, a sophomore who plays Mimi Marquez. “I think this show just makes you realize that you can’t judge people before you get to know them. They could have a whole story you don’t know about.”
Though the reality of HIV/AIDS is different than it was in the 1990s — new treatments have made it possible to live with the disease for decades, and a few people have been cured of the virus outright — it’s still a major problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the total 26,688 AIDS diagnoses in 2013, 10 percent, or 2,753, were attributed to intravenous drug use. With Maine’s skyrocketing heroin use rates, that’s a troubling statistic.
“It’s actually still a huge issue, and it’s not discussed a lot anymore, because people think the AIDS crisis is over,” said Orono High School junior Jessie Walker, who plays The Waitress and sings the “Seasons of Love” solo. “People don’t know what it is anymore, because there’s so little education about it.”
Campbell and her colleague Ambureen Rana, Health Equity’s youth outreach coordinator, echoed Walker’s sense that education about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections is not as rigorous as it was back in the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis regularly made national news.
“Our general consensus in our agency is that young people are not receiving enough information about HIV/AIDS and other STIs,” said Campbell. “Curriculum in schools can vary widely, and what actually gets taught can be different from what is supposed to be taught.”
Alongside those big, important topics on which the plot of “Rent” rests, there’s the songs and choreography. Memorable tunes such as “Seasons of Love,” “La Vie Boheme” and “One Song Glory” and characters such as the sensitive songwriter Roger, the wild child Mimi Marquez, or the sweet, outrageous drag queen Angel are challenging to perform at any age or skill level.
“Theater is an amazing teaching tool,” said Carter. “I’m a big believer in asking kids to rise to excellence, and to challenge themselves to grow. ‘Rent’ gives us a beautiful opportunity to do that.”
Though Carter and staff at Orono High School had chosen “Rent” as the fall musical back in the spring, cast and crew alike got a nice surprise this summer when they discovered that the 20th anniversary national tour of “Rent” would be stopping at the Collins Center for the Arts. Nearly all of the cast will be attending the performance.
“It’s kind of amazing that we get to see it right after we do it,” said Zivi Osher, a sophomore who plays Marc Cohen. “It’s awesome. It’s the coolest thing. I can’t wait.”
Twenty years later, “Rent” remains relevant, not just for the real issues it presents — but for the vision of a caring community of love that it encourages.
“This show is about creating a community of people who love one another against all sorts of odds,” said Carter. “That is a needed message for high school kids. That’s the most important message they can get.”
Orono High School will perform “Rent” at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 27 through 29, in the high school cafeteria. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students and are available by calling 866-4916, ext. 507. The national tour of “Rent” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at the Collins Center for the Arts. Ticket, which are nearly sold out, are $29-$65 via collinscenterforthearts.com or by calling 581-1755. The national tour of “Rent” also will be performed at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. For more information, visit porttix.com.