When you work in show business, you know one thing’s for sure: no matter what happens, the show must go on.
Rent 20th Anniversary Tour
Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson
● Centennial Concert Hall
● Aug. 24 and 25
● Tickets $56-$108 at centennialconcerthall.com and 204-949-3999
There’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the musical Rent when, on the morning of its first preview, its composer Jonathan Larson died at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm.
What followed has become a theatre legend. With the permission of Larson’s parents, the grieving cast performed a staged reading that evening — but by the end of Act I, they couldn’t contain their energy. They rose to their feet and continued with a full performance. At the end of the curtain call, a voice rang out over the applause, shouting, "Thank you, Jonathan Larson."
A re-imagining of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Rent follows a year in the lives of seven young people as they struggle to follow their dreams in New York City’s East Village during the height of the AIDS epidemic. While the specifics of the show may not be relatable to everyone, the underlying themes of hope and love have proven to be timeless and universal.
Rent, which debuted Off Broadway in 1996, was a groundbreaking show during its time and in numerous ways remains a theatrical innovator.
As a rock musical, a genre that began in the 1960s with the counterculture production Hair, it was instrumental in kick-starting the rock-musical renaissance of the late ’90s, which led to Golden Age contemporary works, including Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. It was also notable for its ethnically diverse casting, which was groundbreaking at the time and paved the way for musicals such as Hamilton.
Rent earned Larson numerous posthumous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Musical. It ran on Broadway for 12 years before closing in 2008, but it continues to be restaged and toured in various incarnations and has proven itself to be a cultural touchstone.
Now, two decades after it premièred on Broadway, a 20th anniversary tour is making stops across North America. While it officially kicked off in 2016, the tour recently debuted a new cast for 2019/2020, including Canadian actor Samantha Mbolekwa.
Mbolekwa grew up in North Bay, Ont., before moving to Los Angeles to continue her training at the Young Americans College of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. Though it’s her national tour debut, she previously spent a year working on a cruise ship and at Disneyland, so she’s no stranger to living out of a suitcase.
She’s also no stranger to Rent.
"I sang a solo from Seasons of Love at my elementary school in 2005, when I was 12," she says of the musical’s standout pop hit, which counts off the minutes — 525,600 — in a year. "I’ve never seen it live, but I’ve seen the movie countless times."
Mbolekwa plays Joanne Jefferson, a lawyer from a well-respected and important family who gets involved with a community of East Village artists through her girlfriend, Maureen.
"Joanne is so interesting," says Mbolekwa. "She had a good education, she works in law, but her girlfriend is this crazy artist who is so over the top."
Joanne, a serious professional, often functions as a foil for Maureen, a free-spirited artist, but Mbolekwa is quick to note that it doesn’t make her one-dimensional or unimportant.
"What I love about being Joanne is that as conservative as she may come across, she’s so open and accepting," she says.
It’s this legacy of acceptance and openness that has enabled Rent to live on and maintain its iconic status in popular culture, a status that’s most apparent in its enormously devoted fanbase of Rentheads.
"I’ve met people at the stage door who have seen it 15 times already," says Mbolekwa enthusiastically.
One of those Rentheads is Liz Woolf, a writer based in Los Angeles. "I’ve seen it probably close to 100 times," Woolf says. "What kept me coming back is really what makes any fan see a beloved show over and over: a combination of love for the show, becoming fond of certain cast members and their interpretations, getting to see understudies and new cast members take on roles, and being a part of a community of fans."
For Woolf, community is key. "Live theatre is ephemeral," she notes. "It’s different every time."
For Rent fans, the 20th Anniversary Tour is the perfect chance to revisit a classic musical. And for those who haven’t seen it before, it could be a great time to see what all the buzz is about.
Rent runs Aug. 24-25 at the Centennial Concrt Hall. Tickets are $56-$108 and available at the concert hall box office, online at centennialconcerthall.com or by phone at 204-949-3999.