The first act of the classic ’90s musical “RENT” features a support group for people living with HIV and AIDS. They express their shared mantra through the line “No day but today.” How happy it is that, in the decades since “RENT” premiered, the edginess of that message has been somewhat blunted by social progress. Today, for example Maureen and Joanne could get married. Policies at public and private areas alike would insist on using Angel’s preferred pronouns. Perhaps most importantly, a common truism today holds that “HIV is no longer a death sentence.” In other words, “No day but today” isn’t as accurate as it once was.
When “RENT” premiered in 1996, advanced anti-retroviral medicine was just beginning to make major strides. HIV had already devastated wide swathes of people, particularly young gay men. Many of the main characters expect to live only a short while longer, while some passed before the story even begins. It’s a struggle to find a positive message in a situation so devastating, but one of the reasons this show found such success is that it absolutely nails that part. While it is a meditation on coping with the effects of HIV/AIDS, “RENT” is primarily about community. Being outcasts has taught each of the main characters to live by a code of equity, diversity and acceptance.
The show opens with Roger (Logan Farine) and Mark (Logan Marks) finding out that their former roommate, now landlord, Benny (Marcus John), is evicting them. Benny has plans to develop the vacant lot next door, which is currently hosting a tent city for homeless people. Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Lyndie Moe) — with the help of her current girlfriend, Joanne (Lencia Kebede) — plans an avant-garde protest of the new development. Meanwhile, Roger is a recently-recovered addict, stuck in a deep depression after his girlfriend reacted to an HIV positive diagnosis by committing suicide. He slowly begins to find his way out of his funk with the help of their neighbor, Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker), an exotic dancer and heroin addict who is also HIV positive. Mark and Roger’s friend Tom (Devinré Adams), an anarchist professor, is mugged on the way to visiting them, but is tended to by the kind-hearted transvestite, Angel (Aaron Alcaraz).
This cast of characters is strongest when they are all together. That applies to both their performances and their characters’ well being. When they unite, they are a force to be reckoned with. They kick off a riot to stop the forced removal of the tent city. They drive their patronizing friend’s benefactors out of a cafe. They create a magnificent wall of sound with cracks in all the right places to suggest a vulnerability at its core. Apart, they spend most of their time wondering what it was that made their moments together so powerful — while the audience has a chance to recover.
One of the things that struck me about this performance was simply how good the music is. I could remember liking it, and there’s certainly no getting the “Seasons of Love” anthem out of your head, but some of it had faded from memory. The soundtrack flirts with various sub-genres of ’90s alt-rock, and almost every song is not just a winner, but single-worthy. From the playful tones of “Light my Candle” to the raucous joy of “La Vie Bohème” to the brooding anguish of “One Song Glory,” every piece of the soundscape feels strong on its own, but is also meticulously placed within the overall soundscape.
Over twenty years after its initial release, and despite positive social upheaval in the meantime, I’m pleased to report that “RENT” has not lost its luster. See it at the Aronoff Center thanks to Broadway in Cincinnati from now through December 23.
Zach Moning is the marketing & communications manager at ArtsWave. Reach him here with questions or comments about ArtsWave Guide.