By Miguel A. Gastelum
When Jonathan Larson’s seminal work, “Rent,” first premiered off-Broadway at the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop, it was a critical and financial success. It was, in fact, so popular and tickets in such high demand that it quickly moved to Broadway’s 1,232 seat Nederlander Theatre. It was there that the beloved musical would go on to win the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the same year. Without a doubt, “Rent” sky-rocketed into the cultural zeitgeist and arguably changed the trajectory of musical theatre for the next 25 years. Larson, tragically, did not get the opportunity to witness the success and influence of his work; he died suddenly of an aortic dissection the night before the off-Broadway premiere.
Based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème,” “Rent” follows the ups and downs of a year in the life of a group of impoverished, artistic friends living in Manhattan’s East Village. The group’s dreams, losses, and love stories weave through the musical’s narration to paint a stunningly raw and emotional portrait of the gritty bohemian world of New York City in the late 1980s, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
Despite losing its creator, “Rent” would go on to entertain, inspire, and give voice to those whose lives had been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The original Broadway musical would inspire several national tours, a West End production, several international tours, a cast recording, a motion picture, a filmed Broadway film, two documentaries, and a live television event.
Most recently, Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical “rock monologue,” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was turned into a critically-acclaimed film, produced and directed by Lin Manuel-Miranda. Miranda often credits Larson’s “Rent” as the primary source of inspiration for his blockbuster musical, “Hamilton.”
The acclaimed and influential musical makes its Fresno State University Theatre debut on May 6th. Under the direction of J. Daniel Herring, the production features a cast of 20 Fresno State students, alumni, and community members.
“‘Rent’ has held a special place in my heart for many years,” says Herring. “I vividly remember how devastating the HIV/AIDS epidemic was to the LGBTQ community. Now, in honor of its 25th anniversary, I have been given the opportunity to direct this ground-breaking musical. I feel that perhaps after what we all have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘Rent’ may hold some messages that will hit home a bit harder, providing a deeper emotional understanding of valuing all human life.”
The weight and importance of the material are not taken lightly by students either.
“I think knowing that so many people know this show so well puts a heavy weight on our shoulders to do it justice,” says Julia Prieto, a senior Theatre Arts major portraying the role of Joanne. “The show is incredibly powerful and touches on a lot of important themes surrounding life, friendship and love, and it is on the cast to make sure we listen and understand these themes.”
Performances of “Rent” are at 7:30 p.m. May 6 – 7 and May 10 – 14, and at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, May 9 at the John Wright Theatre on campus. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for Fresno State faculty, staff, alumni and military and $12 for all students. The production is intended only for mature audiences. Children under 12 are not permitted.
The production team includes choreography by Josh Montgomery, vocal direction by Shannah Estep, musical direction by Jordan Williams, scenic design by Jeff Hunter, costume design by Tamrah Sales, lighting design by Regina Harris, and sound design by Liz Crifasi.
The cast includes I Adeficha, Kathryn Deanna Andres, Brianne Avina, Diego Barba, Jason Bionda, Jimmy Haynie, Molly Heng, Alexis Elisa Macedo, Ethan Magill, Cady Mejias, Andrew B. Mickelson, Tyler Murphy, Madeline Nelson, Luke Robert Nothstein, Nwachukwu, Josh Plowman, Julia Prieto, Sabrina Ramirez, Mikayla Rockwell, and Anthony teNyenhuis.