The staying power of “Rent” is unquestionable.
Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has been a theatrical staple since its 1996 Broadway premiere, but like so many shows, it’s evolved through the years, giving “Rent” a chance to address current social issues while also staying true to its original story.
And although director Clay Donaldson appreciates this evolution, his mission is to pay homage to the original production when Theater Baton Rouge opens the musical on Friday.
“I’ve been a huge fan of ‘Rent’ since I discovered theater many years ago,” Donaldson said. “Jonathan Larson died in 1996, but it’s said that if he had lived, he would have taken songs out and added new ones as the show evolved. But now the show stands as sort of a monument to him and the way he wrote it, and I think his vision can alter from production to production. But the core is still there.”
So Donaldson and his 18-member cast will try to recapture Larson’s core vision while also making the production their own.
“I talked to the cast, and what we’ve focused on since our first rehearsal was making these characters extensions of what makes each of them individual and special,” Donaldson said. “I didn’t want them to be carbon copies of performances that we’ve seen in the past. So, we sat down as a cast and really did a lot of talking through everything, telling our own stories, finding ways that we individually connected to the material. And that’s really how we based our entire rehearsal process to create a show where we’re, we’re performing the source material, yet showing who our talent pool is in our community.”
“Rent” is often categorized as a production that changed the musical landscape. There have been others, “Hair” among them, and all are usually “anti-musicals” that burst onto the scene with heavy messages paired with unforgettable music.
Larson was a little-known composer when “Rent” hit Broadway in 1996. Two decades later, the show continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world.
Larson’s story is a reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème,” following a year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out to the mainstream. Whereas Puccini’s opera is set in Paris’ bohemian Latin Quarter, Larson said he wanted to place his story “amid poverty, homelessness, spunky gay life, drag queens and punk” in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which happened to be down the street from his Greenwich Village apartment.
He titled it “Rent,” saying the word had multiple meanings, including “torn apart.”
Larson’s dream was to write a rock opera that would introduce musical theater to the MTV generation, and although its characters face challenges and setbacks, the story amplifies an inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear.
“We’ve done some fun things with this show,” Donaldson said. “Our choreographer, Adam Gilbert, choreographed a fun fantasy sequence whenever the characters Mark and Joanne are singing ‘Tango Maureen,’ where you actually see Maureen, Joanne and Mark dancing the sort of love triangle tango in the two characters’ minds who are singing it on stage.”
Donaldson also has incorporated actor Dion Sideboard’s talent as a drag artist into the character of Angel Dumott Schunard.
“Dion, who’s playing Angel is a drag artist in Baton Rouge, and so it was fun to collaborate with him on his drag performance style and how he could bring some of those things to his portrayal of Angel,” Donaldson said. “And so, we’re not really rewriting the book on anything, but we’ve found ways here and there to make it our own while knowing that ‘Rentheads’ are going to show and want to see what they know and love.”
“Renthead” is a term for the ultimate “Rent” fan, by the way.
“That’s what they’re really called,” Donaldson said, laughing. “I believe we have a strong production that they’ll like. I hope everyone loves it.”