Playlist of the Month: Tiempos De Amor and More

Happy birthday, Rent! Jonathan Larson’s musical premiered 20 years ago today, and in that time Rent has transformed popular musical theater, changed lives, and traveled the world. It’s a testament to Jonathan Larson’s vision that this musical, set in the very specific time and place of Alphabet City in the late 80s-mid 90s, still resonates across the globe. Rent has now been performed on every continent except Antarctica (and maybe Antarctica too, if any of those research scientists are theater geeks). Today, rather than celebrating Rent’s 20th anniversary with the OBC renditions we’ve loved since we were way too young to understand them, we’re taking a look at how Rent has been adapted and translated to reach audiences worldwide.

Rent, Japan

After Rent debuted on Broadway, it quickly became a hit sensation. Producers decided to capitalize on its success by bring the musical to different cities around the world. A mere two years later, Rent opened in Japan, at the height of Rent-mania. Here we see truly contemporary scenes, including an Asian Joanne wearing fake dreads like her African-American counterpart, and it may or may not be cultural appropriation. I find it funny that Japanese words tend to be English words but just said differently, or when you just hear a rando English word like, “headline” news, “Trick-or-Treat” and of course “RENT!”

Fun fact: for a quick second at the beginning of the clip, you see an older gentleman with glasses – that is Al Larson, father of Jonathan Larson. To this day, he goes to as many Rent productions around the world as he can, acting as a representation for his late son and their family.

One Song Glory, Norway

I’d like to preface this by saying I’m still not sure if this is a high school production or not, but either way, this Roger isn’t exactly as strong as Adam Pascal. With all these international versions I find myself translating it into English and thinking I’m fluent in whatever language it’s in. Finna = Find in Norwegian!

Light My Candle, Greece

It’s clear that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pretty women have gotten the chance to play Mimi Marquez, and in Greece, she was played by this gal, who I sincerely think is great and one of the better foreign singers I’ve heard so far. Words I understood: Papou (all thanks to Full House and the passing of Papouli).

Tango Maureen, Brasil

For the Tango Maureen, why would we look anyplace other than Latin America? (Okay, Argentina would have been ideal, but it sounds good in Portuguese). Language aside, Joanne seems so different in this production that it’s worth watching. Also, how is sunny, warm Brazil the only production to nail cold-weather clothing?

Out Tonight, Germany

*FYI the sound is really bad on this, so don’t put it on max vol!* Is it me or does Out Tonight just sound slightly aggressive in German?

I’ll Cover You, Korea

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t Angel and Collins being exactly the same, but Korean. Remember in The Simpsons where there’s alternate universe Maggie with the unibrow? That’s what it feels like. Equally adorable, in any language or continent.

La Vie Boheme, Spain

Including a Spanish production was a no-brainer, since that was my major in college and I spent almost 5 months in Madrid. But here’s a little secret: this song is like 50% people’s names and foods and you could translate this into English with a year of junior high Spanish. It still really, really works in Spanish though.

Seasons of Love, Cuba

Seasons of Love is already a beautiful song, but when it’s sung in a literal romantic language, it just makes it that more beautiful. And emotional. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Without You, Montreal

I don’t know about you all, but when I think heartbreak, I think French. You know how some songs sound just wrong in other languages – the meter or the generally feel is just off? Somehow, Rent sounds great in almost every language, but this one is especially nice in French.

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America, At The End Of The Millennium: Rent As A 90s Period Piece

Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking 1996 musical Rent takes place over approximately 525,600 minutes – but which 525, 600 minutes were they? The stage musical is silent on the year. The movie is set in 1989. But if you found a person who was reasonably well-versed in recent history and pop culture (except that they know nothing about Rent) and had them watch the musical, they’d probably come up with some year between 1993 and 1998.

Yes, Rent is a dated musical, and I mean that in only the most complimentary way. Jonathan Larson set out to make a contemporary musical – his generation’s Hair. He wrote, in 2016 musical theater terms, how Alexander Hamilton did, how Lin-Manuel Miranda does. Larson wrote like he was running out of time. He didn’t know it, but he was: Jonathan Larson died on January 25, 1996. It was the morning before Rent’s first Off Broadway preview. Alterations were made before the Broadway premiere on April 29, 1996, but only using Larson’s words. Therefore, we have a very clear stop-point in the chronology of Rent. Even if it is staged in the “present day,” Rent was written without knowledge of any events taking place after January 25, 1996.

Still, the amazing thing about Rent in the 90s was how modern it was – modern in a way no other musical was. Rent addressed technology, AIDS, trans* identity, sexual orientation, drug use and gentrification. In contrast, look at the other top-grossing Broadway shows of 1996: The Phantom Of The Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Show Boat, Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard. Your grandma would have liked them – in fact, your grandma could have liked some of them in her youth. Cats was still in the midst of its epic run. The next-edgiest show was probably Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, and it didn’t even bring in THAT much funk. (I kid, we love tap.)

So for the earlier part of Rent’s run, Rent was set in the present – even if Jonathan Larson’s present didn’t extend past early 1996. For example, costume designers constantly trawled hip neighborhoods to make sure their cool young characters looked up to date. For years, the libretto held up to a modern interpretation. Cyber cafes, check. Urban drug boom, check. End of the millennium, answering machines, pay phones: check, check and check.

Then, one by one, the references from Jonathan Larson’s book became dated. It’s a bit like when somebody you love dies. First you find yourself writing out checks using a year they never saw, then you’re singing along to songs they didn’t live to hear. One day you look at a photo of them and they don’t look like somebody from the present day anymore: their clothes and hair mark them as a member of the past. So it was with Rent. By 2000, the theme of “America at the end of the millennium” was obsolete (OK, 2001 if we’re being real pedantic about it). Nobody really used the word cyber anymore, and anyway, we didn’t have special Internet places like Benny’s cyber arts space. The answering machine – plot device of so many great 80s and 90s works – was a thing of the past. These people have a land line? What are they, millionaires? To that end, Joanne’s cell phone no longer marked her as an upwardly-mobile, always-connected lawyer. HIV and AIDS are still prevalent, and still more common in communities with a high rate of intravenous drug use, but mercifully, AIDS doesn’t wipe out whole friend groups in the way it did in the 80s and early 90s. And although we voted for a platform of hope in 2008, a lot of the unbounded, youthful optimism of Rent died, at least for a while, after 2001.

By the time Rent was adapted for film in 2005, it was very obviously not modern. Even if you cut out the end of the millennium spiel, you couldn’t slap low-rise jeans and trucker hats on everybody and call it 2005. Jonathan Larson succeeded; he created a musical that defined his time so well that only 5 to 10 years after its release, you could already pinpoint in which era it must have been written. The filmmakers had to choose when to set Rent, and they chose 1989. There’s plenty to recommend 1989. That’s the year Jonathan Larson came up with the early concept for Rent. The AIDS crisis was at its peak. The Tompkins Square Park riot was just the year before.

The movie works – 1989 works – but I still say there’s a little more evidence that the original musical was intended to take place in the 90s. Through years of revisions, Larson incorporated references that wouldn’t have existed in 1989. Cyberarts seems 90s – cyber as a prefix didn’t really take off until that decade. As far as millennia go, 1989 is pretty close to the end of one, but the “end of the millennium” talk gained more traction in the 90s (that’s when we weren’t self-referentially explaining “it’s the 90s.”) Even the relationship that served as Larson’s inspiration for Maureen and Mark didn’t occur until the 90s (although it could as well have happened in the 80s). Most stage productions seem to have taken the 90s concept and run with it. I looked up a few school productions, bright-eyed teenagers done up in 1996 cosplay, imagining a year before they were even born. It’s how we must have looked on 80s day during spirit week in high school in the early 2000s. The teachers must have hated us.

Whichever year you want to place Rent in, it seems pretty clear that it’s somewhere between 1989, when Jonathan Larson’s idea took root, and 1996, when he died. In a play that tells us that there is no future, and there is no past, Rent takes place right now: but it takes place in Jonathan Larson’s right now, and for the last 20 years, for a few hours, we get to live there, too.

No Shame Playing The Fame Game: A Rent Dream Cast

When Rent was originally developed off-Broadway in 1995, the cast was comprised of both newbies and veteran actors, but the one thing they all had in common was talent. Adam Pascal, much like Roger, was an aspiring rocker when he stumbled across the audition for Rent. He had never really done musical theater before – in fact, the blocking for One Song Glory in which he goes back and forth from a table was designed specifically so he could look at pages of the script to rememeber his lines. Meanwhile, his co-star Anthony Rapp had already made his Broadway debut 15 years prior to taking the Nederlander stage.

And over the past two decades, casting for Rent in productions around the world have followed the same formula. You get a handful of “Adams” (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pals Karen Olivo and Leslie Odom Jr.) and “Anthonys” (Neil Patrick Harris, Mel B, Joey Fatone).

With all this talent floating around for the past 20 years, I got to thinking what a production would look like if I put the best of the best together in one dream cast. Let me tell you it’s harder than it seems, just because so many people have come and gone in these iconic roles over the past two decades. I will say that I tried to not use OBC members since they’re lit’rally on a different level (I mean, just look at these bbs at the ’96 Tony Awards), so here are some of my faves who have been to Alphabet City and were the best to tell the epic story of Rent.

Skyler Astin as Mark Cohen and Aaron Tveit as Roger Davis

Every year, the folks at the Hollywood Bowl pick a musical to present for one weekend in the summer, and it’s usually a star-studded affair. They’ve done Hairspray, Spamalot, and this year they’re doing A Chorus Line, but in 2010, Neil Patrick Harris (who played Mark in a ’97 national tour) was put in charge as the director of Rent. And he managed to get a super talented cast on board – Wayne Brady (Collins), Vanessa Hudgens (Mimi), Nicole Scherzinger (Maureen), and Gwen Stewart, who reprised her role from the OBC as the soloist in Seasons of Love. But the real highlight was a pre-Pitch Perfect and post-Next to Normal Aaron Tveit as Mark and Roger, respectively. This duo alone made me immediately purchase a ticket (again, one of the eight times I’ve seen Rent). Both Aaron and Skyler are amazing singers and Broadway vets, so commanding an audience of 17,000 in an outdoor amphitheater is no small feat, but both got the job done and done well. They were perfectly cast and also had good chemistry between themselves, which bodes well as the core of the Rent family. I think I passed out during What You Own.

Renee Elise Goldsberry as Mimi Márquez

Before she was looking for a mind at work, Renee Elise Goldsberry was looking for a light and her stash of heroin in Rent. The goddesss that we all know and love from Hamilton was the last person to play Mimi on Broadway when it closed in 2008. Renee played her version of Mimi as sexy, cool, and vulnerable all at the same time, and of course had the pipes to back it up. I also managed to see the final Broadway run (2 of 8, #humblebrag) and when I stage doored the cast, I legit have a picture that’s currently up on Facebook of a pic of Renee posing for a picture *with someone else that’s not me* and the caption reads, “renee … something or other. she played mimi. she was also on one life to live.” Oh 2008 Traci. Little did you know.

Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins

Ok, here’s one of two exceptions I made with the OBC. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing as good a job as Jesse L. Martin did with Collins. Few have come close, but I don’t think anyone’s been able to capture the same heart and sorrow Jesse conveyed as Collins. And separately, Jesse is a fantastic actor, while also an astounding singer, and no where else does this come through the best than when he sings the I’ll Cover You reprise. There hasn’t been a time I’ve watched him sing this where I haven’t cried.

Justin Johnson as Angel Dumott Schunard

Justin was Renee’s co-star in the final Broadway cast, and akin to Jesse, it’s hard to live up to the OG cast, especially following Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who took home a Tony for playing Angel. But there was something about Justin in this role that *gave Angel new wings*. I remember thinking he made the role feel fresh, and exciting again. After 12 years, there have been Angels who copy Wilson, and Angels who take it too far, but Justin was jussttt right. He also had outstanding chemistry with his Collins, played by Michael McElroy, who might come up again later.

Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen Johnson

Honestly, if you don’t like Annaleigh Ashford don’t talk to me. This girl is amazing in everything she does, frankly it’s annoying. From Wicked to Kinky Boots to Masters of Sex, she manages to bring humor and heart to every role. If Idina can’t be Maureen, I want Annaleigh to be Maureen in everything. This role is so perfect for her, I almost can’t even watch it.

Tracie Thoms as Joanne Jefferson

Tracie had been auditioning for Rent for eight years before booking the role of Joanne in the movie – she was a legit Renthead that proved dreams could come true. And not only did she appear on the big screen as Maureen’s love interest, she reprised her role in the final Broadway cast in 2008 and in 2010 for the Hollywood Bowl. And with all due respect to Fredi Walker Browne, I always pictured Joanne more like Tracie, which is why I think she’s the perfect person to play opposite a young firecracker like Maureen. True story: I met Tracie Thoms after the Broadway show and told her we had the same name. She feigned amusement. I hung my head in shame and my friend took this super zoomed in pic of us:

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lolololol

Leslie Odom Jr. as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III

Like his Hamilton co-star Renee, Leslie also had a role in Rent prior to heading off to duel A. Ham, in fact, Rent was his Broadway debut. He grew up singing in church and musicals weren’t even in vocabulary until Rent. He graduated from high school and had spent the summer auditioning when he got the called to play Paul in the ensemble. He was 17. Now at 34, I’m pretty sure he can pull off a pretty convincing “villain” in Benny. I think he’s had some practice.

Ensemble

  • Michael McElroy as Mr. Jefferson / Pastor

As previously mentioned, Michael was the last person to play Collins on Broadway and I was :thisclose: to choosing him for Collins, but bumped him in favor of my boy Jesse instead. Again, his chemistry with Justin was infectioous and his voice is so so dreamy.

  • Gwen Stewart as Mrs. Jefferson / Woman with bags / “Seasons of Love” soloist

Also as previously mentioned, Gwen was in the OBC, so why not ruin a good thing?

  • Wayne Wilcox as Gordon / The Man / Mr. Grey

Wayne played Gordon in the movie but you know why he looks familiar to you? Because he played Marty, Rory’s sometimes naked, unrequited love interested from Gilmore Girls.

  • Telly Leung as Paul

Telly was in the final Broadway cast in the ensemble and also played Angel in the Hollywood Bowl cast and he is just delightful.

  • Emma Hunton as Alexi Darling / Mrs. Davis

Emma played Maureen in the 2011 Off-Broadway revival, and you obviously have to have an impressive set of pipes for that role. She’s also been in Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and in the little role Elphaba in the Wicked tour.

  • Aaron Lohr Steve / Squeegee man / Waiter

Aaron played the same role, and in a seat next to Wayne Wilcox in the movie, and again, if he looks familiar to you, you’re a child of the ’90s because he was Mush in Newsies and in D2 and D3: The Mighty Ducks as Dean Portman.

  • Eden Espinosa as Mrs. Cohen

Eden took on the role of Maureen in the final Broadway cast with some others mentioned above. And it seems to be some kind of trend because like Emma and Idina – she also is best known for playing Elphie both on Broadway and on tour for Wicked.

I Should Tell You: Things From Rent I Didn’t Understand As A Tween

Welcome to EVERYTHING IS RENT Week – a celebration of the 20th anniversary of one of our favorite musicals, and a beloved show by millions around the world. We’re kicking it off with confessions, of sorts. Let’s back it up a bit. Rent opened on Broadway on April 29th, 1996. We were 9 and 10 years old at the time. Rent mania was at its peak in the years following, and since we’re both cut from the same musical theatre/Patti LuPone cloth, we became fans of the show in our tween/teen years.

And if you’ve seen Rent or are familiar with the music, you know it would probably be rated M for Mature Audiences, or at least get a TV-14 rating. Naturally, there were some plot points, lyrics, and insights we didn’t get at the time, but now as adults (and older than most of the main characters in the show), we obviously have a different perspective on life and understand Rent much, much better than before. Here are some of the light bulb moments we’ve had in the past 20 or so years, and hopefully we’re not the only ones who were a little late to the game. Get at us, fellow millennials!

Everything about Contact

T: I believe I was 13 when I saw Rent for the first time (full disclosure, I’ve seen it 8 times in total), and true story – I went with my church youth group. I didn’t go to a super progressive church, however I did go to a United Church of Christ, which used rainbows in all their logos for a while because they were pro-equality and stuff. Anyways, it was a group outing sans parents, and it was a majority of my friends and like two of our cool youth group leaders. However, when it came time for Contact, a scene which simulates sex, I was uncomfy to the max. I looked down at my program, attempted to stare at other non-condom looking pieces on the stage, but I mostly just blocked it out of my first Rent experience. I even skipped over the song when I listened to the soundtrack (I know, #prude). It took me a while before I could listen to it for what it actually was, and why it held importance to the story as a whole. Stay safe out there, kids.

M: Oh, I skipped over Contact EVERY TIME. Probably still would. We played a lot of cast albums around my house when I was a kid, and I think it was an unspoken understanding that we didn’t listen to that one. But am I wrong in thinking that the staging was kind of weird, and so was the song and, awkward tween moments aside, it’s the least catchy number on the OBC album? My inner Catholic School 11-year-old suspects that I am not.

Mimi was a stripper

T: So this probably seems obvious to most people, but Mimi Marquez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) was a stripper. For some reason, I thought she was just a straight up prostitute/hooker/lady of the night. Maybe it was the provocative clothes and the fact she was on the hunt for her dropped baggie of heroin in Light My Candle? IDK. I mean it doesn’t even really make sense, seeing as how I knew all the lyrics by heart:

Do you go to the Cat Scratch Club?
That’s where I work, I dance
Yes!
They used to tie you up
It’s a living
I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs

I also thought he meant she got arrested a lot – because she was a prostitute.

HOLD UP WAS LIGHT MY CANDLE ALSO MIMI TRYING TO GET A LIGHT SO SHE COULD HEAT UP HER HEROIN???? HONESTLY I’M HAVING AN A-HA MOMENT RIGHT NOW IS THIS REAL CAN SOMEONE CONFIRM THIS? THIS IS BRAND NEW INFORMATIOn

M: I grew up next to one drug house and across the street from another, so yeah, that part wasn’t lost on me. (This is where our urban vs suburban upbringing really shines. In our musical theater analysis. Because whether from the streets or the culs de sac, we’re both mostly theater nerds.)

All About Akita

T:  I have a tendency to listen more to music and composition over lyrics a lot of times, which I personally find annoying. So when I first saw Today 4 U being performed, all I could focus on was this guy dancing in heels way better than I ever could. Listening back to it, I always thought it was just a fun song to dance to. But then I got woke and paid attention to the lyrics and it was an eye-opening moment to realize Angel had killed a dog for money.

A few things about this:

  • A rando woman (imagine Jacqueline Vorhees on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S1) rolls up to Angel in her limo and is all, ‘Dahling, be a dear, kill my neighbor’s dog for me because it’s too yippy and loud. But kill it using your talent as a plastic tub drummer, you know how you make a living. kthxbyeee’.
  • How would you agree to do this?? You’re broke and offered $1,000 yeah ok that makes sense.
  • But then you tell this story with glee to people you’ve just met?
  • Again, Jacqueline Vorhees wannabe was certain his drumming would make the dog kill itself: “I believe if you play nonstop that pup/Will breathe its very last high strung breath/I’m certain that cur will bark itself to death”
  • And then it did by jumping out the window of an apartment building.
  • Didn’t realize the phrase “Today for you, tomorrow for me” basically meant to pay it forward, and someone will help you when you need it the most.

Seasons of Love

T: By the end of 8th grade, I was fully obsessed with Rent. So much so that I managed to convince our music teacher to let us sing Seasons of Love at graduation. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments, despite the fact it touches upon death. And it’s from a musical which features sexy, drugs, and death from AIDS. And I don’t think I fully realized that at the time. I don’t think my 60ish other classmates did either. You’re welcome class of 2000 from my Catholic middle school.

*PS: Please note pre-Hamilton Renee Elise Goldsberry in the video above, and also note the tears that will project from your eyeballs.

Learning La Vie Boheme

T: When I first listened to the soundtrack, I didn’t get about 80% of the references in La Vie Boheme. I could sing the entire thing back to you but there were so many pop culture references in the song that Amy Sherman-Palladino would be left exhausted. But, like ASP’s work, I had to look up and research all the words and names I didn’t recognize and TBH, Rent is the reason why I know who people like Akira Kurosawa or Vaclav Havel are. Art is educational, y’all.

PS: Still reeling from my Light My Candle revelation, TBH.

M: See, there was no tumblr in 1996, so young people had to list the stuff they were into in song, instead.

Nobody Pays Their Rent

M: I rewatched Rent this past Christmas, after the unexpected death of a too-young family member a week before. I fast-forwarded through all of the parts about, y’know, death and dying. HEY. Did you know when you take out the AIDS and tragedy, Rent is just a piece about financial irresponsibility????

When I was 9-14 years old, I was very “YES. You ride that bike midday past the 3-piece suits. Follow your heart. Follow your ART.” And at 29, these people annoy me. Get a job – it doesn’t need to be a traditional one, but thief and grifter aren’t jobs – and pay your rent. And stop being shitty to your middle class parents who probably sacrificed their dreams so you could squat in a loft avoiding their calls.

Bad Tippers At The Life Cafe

M: In real life, just about everyone I know who is, or once was, struggling to make ends meet is also a very good tipper. Running out on your bill? Way to stick it to the artsy bohemian cafe and the waiter who makes less than minimum wage because you’re supposed to tip him. I guess it just bothers me because they’re not even screwing over “the man.”

One Song Glory > Your Eyes

M: Roger’s song about writing a song: so good. The actual song Roger writes: so very, very cheesy. Is the takeaway that Roger isn’t a very good songwriter? Or is the rhyming dictionary entry for “eyes” set to music actually a great song, and I just don’t realize it?

Falling Quickly

M: In sixth grade, it didn’t occur to me that Jack and Rose’s epic romance was actually a few days of pre-dating infatuation. At the same age, I also missed that the whole first act of Rent is just Christmas, pretty much. Which means that Angel and Collins go from zero to I’ll Cover you real, real fast. Of course there’s more immediacy when best cast scenario you’re about to get evicted and worse case scenario, you have AIDS, but for some reason I thought everyone knew each other longer.