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Theatre Review: Rent at the NAC—until 10.27.19

By Samara Caplan and Laura Gauthier on October 24, 2019

Laura and Samara spend their days as non-profit unicorns and fill every spare minute exploring the world of musical theatre as BFFs (that’s Broadway Friends Forever).

As self-proclaimed RENTheads, (Rent is on the shortlist for Laura’s favourite musical of all time), having the show resurface in Ottawa this year was a big deal for us, and we couldn’t wait for it to launch the Broadway Across Canada series in Ottawa.

The show is inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème and follows the stories of a group of young artists working to achieve their dreams while struggling to get by—all during the AIDS crisis and massive gentrification of the early ‘90s in New York City. With music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson, Rent also launched the careers of many Broadway favourites including Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen), Anthony Rapp (If/Then, Star Trek: Discovery) and Adam Pascal (Aida, Memphis).

Opening Off-Broadway and selling out every show led to the show’s transfer to Broadway in 1996. Rent provided a voice for those who needed it and changed musical theatre forever, winning the Pulitzer Prize and four Tony’s including Best Original Score. It became the inspiration for many other musicals as well as the show of a generation. It’s now referred to as “the Hamilton of its day” due to the show’s popularity and massive marketing reach. Breaking the mould on what musicals were meant to sound like, and meant to discuss, Rent opened up a wave of musicals telling deeper stories and commenting on societal issues that worked towards more than a happy ending.

Wanting to make the show accessible to the audience Rent is about (struggling Bohemians in their twenties) and for whom Larson had written the show for, Rent birthed the idea of “ticket lotteries.” Once the show moved to Broadway, the producers set aside a block of premium tickets that would get “rushed” two hours before the show on a first-come, first-serve basis. The hardcore fan following led to huge lines around the block and there were even audiences camping out for tickets. In an effort to reel back on this idea which seemed to be getting out of hand, the show replaced their rush system with the very first lottery system, where $20 tickets were given out by random draw. To honour that original idea, the current BAC tour is offering day-of rush tickets for $25.

Nine years after its Broadway opening, Rent hit the big screen as a feature film, retaining most of the original cast, but with some alterations from the stage version, including some cuts to the soundtrack. Rent then resurfaced on the small screen last January with Rent Live!, a one-night special that even included cameos from the original Broadway cast.

Jonathan Larson’s sudden death the night before the opening of his Off-Broadway run was devastating and meant that he would never get to see the success of what he had created. However, it also lead to the creation of the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation (which is now the Jonathan Larson Grants, run by the American Theatre Wing), which provides funding to artists and has helped the early careers of such creators as Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen).

This tour does not disappoint. With the industrial looking set and an on-stage band the show has come to be known for, plus an especially strong performance by Cody Jenkins as Mark, who not only narrates the story but has many demanding dance and vocal numbers. Not to be biased by the RENTheads, we attended with some friends who were familiar with the movie but who had never seen the show, as well as friends who weren’t familiar with the show at all, and everyone left the theatre bopping their heads and with a big smile on their faces.

In the end, being a story about friendship and love, Rent stands the test of time. Its impact continues to grow decades later, providing inspiration, and a voice for audiences and artists alike, but above all, making sure we measure our lives in love.

Listen to some of our favourites from this rocked out score on our Spotify list below. Viva la vie Boheme!

Rent continues at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) until Sunday October 27th. Showtimes are Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 1pm and 7:30pm. Tickets range between $53–188. The show runs about 2 hours and 40 minutes with intermission. A limited number of rush tickets are available two hours before show at the box office for at $25 each.