The 20th anniversary of Rent offers a potent reminder is that it was the Hamilton of its day; a show that became a genuine cultural phenomenon. Its portrait of mid-1990s Bohemian New York – based around characters living in an East Village squat and affected by homelessness, drugs and HIV – offered a powerful message about the importance of living in the here and now.
As the song No Day but Today puts it: “There is no future/There is no past/I live each moment as my last”. That urgent immediacy is translated into a thrillingly visceral, high-stakes score, and its chilling prescience was amplified by the fact that its young creator and composer Jonathan Larson himself died on the eve of the show’s first downtown preview of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.
Some of the rough-edged rawness of its original Broadway staging (by Michael Greiff) has been smoothed out in Bruce Guthrie’s more glossy, less gritty production, with its industrial, graffiti-ed, multi-platformed set by Anna Fleischle. But the stunningly well-cast company lend it serious vocal heft, making Larson’s rich melodies soar and wound, as we follow two tenderly charted ill-fated romances between Ross Hunter’s aspiring musician Roger and Philippa Stefani’s club dancer Mimi, and Ryan O’Gorman’s Tom and Layton Williams as his drag queen lover Angel. All four are exceptional, and Williams in particular executes some nifty, high-heeled steps in Lee Proud’s dynamic choreography.
But it is Billy Cullum’s Mark Cohen – a bit of an outsider who records their lives through his camera lens – that we experience the story through, and there’s a piquant coincidence that Anthony Rapp, who originated that role, is playing a solo cabaret in the St James Studio downstairs while this production is playing in the main house. Rent lives on – and so do its players.