If the acclaimed Broadway musical “Rent” were a person, it would now be as old as the characters in the show. Currently on its 20th anniversary tour, the show is as strong as ever and proving now is the time for a season of love.
Conceived by the late Jonathan Larson, the show premiered on Broadway in 1996. Inspired by Puccini's opera “La Bohème,” the show follows a group of 20-somethings in New York as they deal with their passions, love, HIV and drug addiction. Though the story is firmly set in the 1990s, the themes are as timeless today as they were then: hope in times of fear, finding your friends amidst chaos and following your dreams without selling out.
I spoke with Coleman Cummings -- who plays the iconic role of Roger, the rock dreamer trying to put his addiction behind him while finding love and facing an uncertain future -- on why “Rent” is still relevant over two decades later.
“’Rent’ at its core is about the human experience,” he told me. “These themes will always be relatable. It’s about love, it’s about loss, it’s about family. It’s about struggling artists, betrayal, drug addiction, disease. These are all things people are still dealing with today.” Even though the show was set two decades ago, “Emotions and the relationships those people had are still very much relatable now,” he added.
As universal as these themes are, it’s hard not to chuckle a bit when they sing about opening “Cyberarts,” a “a state-of-the-art digital and virtual interactive studio,” which more than likely would have operated with outdated technology five years after it opened. Coleman encourages audiences to view the show as a period piece, complete with corded phone lines, answering machines and Spike Lee’s film production schedule tying up the streets of New York (well, that last part could still be true).
“Technology has advanced so quickly. It’s important for the show to stay true to its time period.” Especially with the LGTBQ+ themes that were so taboo in the '90s (like the way AIDS and HIV were handled as a death sentence then, now is a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come). “I think it's great for people who were alive then…to remember and relive those moments and important for people now to really see how it was,” Coleman said. Plus, having gay couples represented in a major musical is still “so important,” he added.
I wanted to know how Coleman prepared to play a role Adam Pascal originally made famous (Aaron Tveit, now starring in “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway, and “Nashville” star Will Chase have also put their own spins on the part).
“I was so nervous. There was so much pressure for the role and preconceived ideas of how Roger is supposed to be,” Coleman said. The creative team let Coleman have his own ideas for the role, which included a backstory and little twists on the character. He also drew from documentaries on addiction and stories from "Rent" director Evan Ensign about what it was like to live through the AIDS crisis, all of which helped him to construct a fully formed character that pops on the stage.
There’s always a reason to see "Rent," but in this instance, even if you’ve seen it a million times (or if it’s your first time), there’s no day but today to grab tickets for the tour. Coleman says this particular cast has incredible chemistry and a real feeling of community and love. “It really comes across in the performance of the show,” he said.
I asked Coleman where he supposes tortured love birds Roger and Mimi are today. Are they about to celebrate their 25th anniversary? Is Roger a rock star? Did Mimi find the stability they both need? He doesn’t know how much longer they would have survived together, or if at all (I mean, they’re close to death at various points in the show and constantly fighting), but maybe those two angsty kids grew up and made it after all. We can dream as big as they did, right?
Get your tickets for the 20th anniversary tour of "Rent," running through May 2020.