The story now sounds so cliché, but when I was a closeted high school sophomore in suburban Denver, RENT changed my life. It wasn’t just the beautiful love between Collins and Angel that spoke to me, every single word of the musical struck a chord within my soul.
In the years that followed, my RENT obsession became part of my life identity. I got a “No Day But Today” tattoo, I studied every cultural reference in “La Vie Boheme,” I nerded it up on the RENT community boards, and like so many others I slept on the street on a regular basis in hopes of scoring a front row rush seat to the show. I even took my Dad with me to see the show and I looked intently at his reaction to all of the gay parts in preparation of my coming out to him. I was a proud RENT Head.
A few years ago, RENT was made available to community theatres and a RENT: School Edition was even created for high schools to perform. I was skeptical –- would these young people get it? Would they understand the devastation from AIDS, would they relate to suffering for your art? Would they be able to communicate the equality of all the relationships in the show?
This weekend, I had my first opportunity to experience the non-professional version of RENT, which was performed by the students of Fullerton Community College in conservative Orange County, California. I went in with very tempered expectations –- I knew it wasn’t going to be like watching Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal and I was fully prepared to become annoyed if they didn’t get something right. But in the end something completely unexpected happened: I was very moved by these young actors.
I watched with pride as I witnessed a new generation of young people experiencing this glorious story. They honored the traditional words of Jonathan Larson and they made the show their own at the same time. They even made my lifelong dream of being on a RENT stage come true. They pulled a few audience members onto the stage during the “Over the Moon” performance and as my Husband and I danced on stage, my eye glasses flew off and were left somewhere on the stage for the rest of the first act -– it wasn’t very bohemian of me.
After the performance, I became lost in a sea of YouTube videos to see what RENT looks like in a high school setting. It is quite surreal to see love songs performed between teenage versions ofMaureen and Joanne and to see the pain of a teenage size Collins sing at the funeral of his lover Angel. In many ways, this is what equality looks like.
Of course, not everyone is as happy as I am to see young people performing in RENT -- many of these performances have been canceled and protested. Though when the show does go on, it exposes future voters to the reality that love comes in many different forms -– and all those forms deserve the respect and dignity of recognition.
Photo credit: Brian Lane Winfield Moore