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So, What Is It About "Rent," Anway?

April 15, 2009 - Phyllis Sigal
My daughter summed it up quite nicely after we enjoyed the opening night of "Rent" at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh.

It's just so good.

You still hear so much about the show that opened in 1996, and wonder what is so great about it. Then you see it, and you know what it is about "Rent" that keeps it fresh, keeps it popular, keeps it relevant.

For one, it's the music. What great songs have come out of that show ... "Rent," "One Song Glory," "Light My Candle," "Seasons of Love," "I'll Cover You" and my favorite, "Santa Fe."

It's the energy ... watching those dancers on stage is amazing. And the energy of the characters just living their lives.

It's the heart-wrenching sadness of loss, and the triumph of love and friendship. Those stories never go out of style.

Obviously the tale transcends time — the show is based on "La Boheme," written by Puccini in 1896 and set in 1830. Reading the synopsis, I am still amazed at the similarities ... down to the Americanized names of the French characters. In fact I did see the opera in Venice several years ago, and had it not been that I knew the story from "Rent," I'd have never understood what was going on!

The opening night audience for "Rent" at the Benedum was truly full of fans. When Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who both originated the roles at the New York Theatre Workshop and on Broadway, came on stage, there were hoots and hollers all around. When Gwen Stewart belted her solo in "Seasons of Love," which she originated, also at New York Theatre Workshop and on Broadway, the crowd went wild. And I got chills. You could tell a lot of people had seen "Rent" many times before — groupies for sure.

And seeing it with those original stars — wow. There really is something special about the original Broadway cast — as if the parts are THEIR parts, and everyone else just got to play it. (I sure would've loved to have seen Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel in their roles as Benny and Maureen.)

Along with Adam, Anthony and Gwenn, several other members of the touring cast have been in "Rent" on Broadway as well. And all of the cast members held their own for sure. Sometimes when there are "stars" or "notables" in a cast, you wonder if everyone else will measure up. Well, they did.

I remember seeing "Rent" for the first time in August of 2003 in the Nederlander Theatre. Many of the cast members were making their Broadway debut, and some had come from a touring company of "Rent," but none were originals. One interesting connection I discovered as I pored over my program from 2003 and my program from the Pittsburgh show: I found one name who was in both — Andy Senor. He played Angel — a drag queen, one of the main characters — on Broadway and is cast as "Steve, a man with a squeegee, a waiter and others" in the touring production. Unfortunately his understudy performed in the show I saw in Pittsburgh. I remember Angel on Broadway as being one of my favorite characters. Senor also understudies Angel in this touring production.

One interesting thing about attending a Broadway show this time of year is that the actors collect money as patrons exit the theater for Broadway Cares, a fund-raising effort for AIDS. So far, in just four weeks, this "Rent" production has raised about $220,000. At the end of the show, one of the lead performers usually comes out to talk about the cause.

At the opening night of "Rent," Anthony Rapp, who plays Mark, talked about the cause. He also auctioned off a "back-stage experience." A few lucky winners paid $700 each for the opportunity to come back to the show during its Pittsburgh run, hang out with the stage manager throughout the show and mingle a bit with the cast!

I got to put my couple of bucks in a bucket manned by Benny, the yuppy landlord. And for my husband's $20 donation, we got a program autographed by all of the cast members!

It's pretty cool to see the actors as people, and then to rub elbows with them on your way out the door.

It's always interesting, too, to read the bios of the actors to see where they've been before this particular show.

Mimi, played by Lexi Lawson, noted in her bio that she was a contestant on this season's "American Idol," but "left the show to honor a dream of playing the role of Mimi."

"Rent" will be at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center for the Performing Arts through April 19.

I'd go again if I could .... I'm thinking now that I have "Rent Radio" on my iPhone's Pandora application, am about to download the original Broadway cast recording and can't stop watching the little clip of the show on the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Web site, that maybe I'm an official "Rent" groupie now.

How do I love "Rent"? 525,600 ways ....


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The cast of "Rent"


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