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Inside the rehearsal room with the 20th Anniversary production of RENT
Jonathan Larson's landmark 1996 musical RENT is regarded as one of musical theatre's defining modern achievements. After a modest opening off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop the show became an overnight sensation, transferring to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre where it continued to play for a record breaking 5,123 performances to July 2008. The show has been seen in the West End on two previous occasions – the original London production which ran at the Shaftesbury Theatre and a short-lived revival titled RENT: Remixed which ran at the Duke of York's Theatre and attempted to reinvent the show with a contemporary spin.
For fans of the show and 'RENT-heads', the musical features a powerful and challenging rock score that uses the narrative of Puccini's opera La Bohème and updates the story to early 90s New York City and deals with issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, homelessness and homosexuality. Once regarded as 'shocking' the show spoke strongly to a younger generation of musical theatre fans and changed the landscape of Broadway forever.
RENT went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama along with the Tony Award for Best Musical, but sadly the creator Jonathan Larson was unable to see his success play out as he tragically died on the evening of the first preview off-Broadway. An emotional cast and crew came together to harness Larson's bohemian spirit and undying love for his work and made RENT one of the world's most popular and most successful pieces of musical theatre of all time.
In 2016 the 20th anniversary of the show, a new production has been mounted by Robert Mackintosh and Idili Theatricals which will open at Theatr Clywd before a UK tour and extended run at London's St James Theatre over the Christmas period. The production broke booking records at the St James and is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated new productions of the year, with fans of the show returning to the musical as well as a brand new generation of musical theatre fans who are yet to see it on stage.
Last week we attended an exclusive rehearsal for the production where we were treated to five of the shows most well known numbers, performed by the exceptionally talented cast which includes Ross Hunter (Roger Davis), Billy Cullum (Mark Cohen), Ryan O’Gorman (Tom Collins), Shanay Holmes (Joanne Jefferson), Layton Williams (Angel Schunard), Philippa Stefani (Mimi Marquez) and Lucie Jones (Maureen Johnson). From the pulsating opening number, refreshingly staged by choreographer Lee Proud and director Bruce Guthrie, we got to see moments of tenderness, humour and excess with classic musical theatre songs such as “Take Me or Leave Me” and “One Song Glory” given a wholly fresh approach.
“I've never seen it which is quite an admission to make” admits director Bruce Guthrie who has been working on this production for quite some time. “I knew it and read it and read a lot about the time and the place and it's just sensational – it's unbelievable good. I've purposefully avoided watching interpretations of things. Sometimes you can't help it and you can't avoid it.”
For such an iconic musical one of the many challenges in mounting a new production is the expectation of the audience, as well as the performers who often come to it already with a personal connection. Guthrie explained his approach and method to making sure it was examined as a new work:
“Even when we get to the stage we're at now there's still an awful lot of investigation to do” he explained. “The actors can have new ideas, it's a first draft. You constantly interpret and ask questions – don't be afraid to say an idea doesn't work. I try to listen to everybody on the team and it really doesn't get any better. There are different relationships and perspectives so we collaborate and discuss what's the best way of making something happen. It takes on a life of its own and it changes – it's not just one voice.”
The connection to writer and creator Jonathan Larson is apparent in this new production, and Guthrie explained that he has spent a lot of time making sure it is true to the text and original intentions.
“It's Jonathan's version and that's what the piece has to be” he states. “Some people have changed the ending and that was the first question I was asked by Larson's family when we first talked about the show - what are you going to do with the ending? We do the end as written and they were very relieved about that. There's a synopsis of this show that can sound very heavy – if it's just that then it's not the show. The show is about the triumph of the human spirit.”
He went on to speak about RENT as a landmark piece of musical theatre for which the form continues to relate back to.
“Jonathan was very much inspired by Hair which was a game changing musical of its day. Lin Manuel-Miranda, the author of Hamilton and In The Heights has absolutely cited RENT as his inspiration for creating that musical. That was a game changer, and RENT helped him create Hamilton, which gives a great sense of community in the theatre as well.”
In terms of RENT relating to a contemporary 2016 audience, not just in London but across the country, Guthrie was confident that the themes of the show continue to resonate.
“It's so relevant to now and what people are going through on a daily basis in this country” he explains. “That's what theatre does better than any other medium – it gets a group of people in a room and shares a story. We take from it what we want – whether that's an entertainment factor, if it's the songs or the choreography – that's fine. It's all there, there is so much stuff in it – different styles of song and it's a real privilege for us to work on it and get to do it.”
RENT opens at Theatr Clwyd on 21 October 2016. It runs at the St James Theatre in London from 8 December to 28 January 2017.