Homosexuality. Homelessness. Rebellion. Heartbreak. Any one of these themes could drive a story. Together, they made history. RENT, the groundbreaking rock musical of struggling artists trying to make it in New York City’s East Village, is coming to Jacksonville to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
I didn’t realize I was already familiar with the musical until I sat down to write this story. For a brief period of my childhood, I truly enjoyed singing. As far as my friends and I were concerned, we were already on equal footing with Glee’s Lea Michele. I remember when our choir director handed out the sheet music for “Seasons of Love.” If you think you don’t know it, the intro is sure to spark a memory. It’s RENT’s most popular song and has become associated with AIDS Awareness Day (February 7). Its harmony naturally invites listeners to join in, and it truly encompasses the themes Jonathan Larson incorporates in his 1996 musical.
RENT is a reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, which premiered in Italy a century before. Larson traded Paris for New York City, modernized characters’ occupations and brought attention to the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Samantha Mbolekwa plays Joanne Jefferson, a lawyer for whom another character (Maureen Johnson) leaves her boyfriend (Mark Cohen). It’s a fitting production for the Canadian actress, whose own exposure to “Seasons of Love” at a young age put her on the path to performing arts. Mbolekwa isn’t the only member of the company who’s touring far from home. The cast comprises actors from The Dominican Republic, Guam and Hawaii, to name a few. They’ve been rehearsing and performing together since June 2019.
“My favorite aspect of the show would be the finale. The cast is all on stage together one final time, and we get to watch a projector screen with our faces that was filmed during our rehearsals in New York City,” Mbolekwa told Folio Weekly. “It’s a beautiful reminder of how lucky we are to be doing what we love.”
The musical is true to its time and serves as a sort of time capsule for ‘90s culture. Its diverse cast made controversial topics the highlight of the show’s legacy and attracted a substantial following; a quick Internet search yields fan art, social media groups, quizzes and even tattoos.
“RENT does still have the same cult following as it did during its heyday. We actually meet Rentheads who have been following the show since it first premiered,” Mbolekwa said. “We’ve also met a handful of a younger generation of Rentheads, which is really special to see. This show is so real and raw and full of acceptance and love. And, so, to see a younger generation loving this show is really unique and important.”
Since 1996, the musical has won three Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Drama Desk Awards. It is one of the longest running Broadway shows and continues to teach teens and adults alike the value of life, friendship and hope. With its LGBT and HIV-positive characters, relatable plot, and modern-day setting, it’s no wonder the musical transformed the way Americans viewed Broadway. Playwrights and actors slowly let go of the idea that they had to transport audiences to another country, culture or time period to be entertaining; they could be authentic.
“RENT really was edgy for its time,” Mbolekwa said. “I would confidently say that a good portion of the world has been and is progressing. However, we still have a long way to go.”