Walking the Tightrope of RENT

There are few truths so universal that they speak to every generation in any language. The Broadway smash Rent holds those truths up to the light, exposing the bones and the heart in all of us. Players by the Sea stages the ground-breaking musical July 18 through Aug. 9 at 106 N. 6th Street in Jacksonville Beach. Call 248-0289 or visit www.playersbythesea.org for ticket information.

RENT-174_PHOTO-CREDIT-MichaIt’s a first for director Alex Rodriguez, who oversees all of the theater’s educational programming. Rodriguez was only seventeen when he was initially introduced to the characters struggling to fuel their passions and battle the demon HIV in Rent. The experience opened his eyes to the world of musical theater and he has never looked back. “I’ve always been a fan of the show,” he says. “When they asked if I was interested and without a doubt I said yes. The reason I moved back to Jacksonville was to direct Rent.”

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohême, the show follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create on New York’s Lower East Side. Rent is originally set in the 80s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but the story is transcends time through its rich, musical landscape painted in shades of love, loss, strength and, above all else, friendship. Rodriguez was drawn to the show’s themes, particularly in the conversational way in which the fight in each character is represented.

“Rent is not dated. The story is so universal and it’s got a big heart right in the middle of it,” he says. “It’s a human story and the characters are in every one of us today and every one of us tomorrow.” The subject matter is also still very real in today’s world as people continue to strive to find their own voices and stand up for what they believe in despite seemingly insurmountable odds. “The message is to fight for something,” Rodriguez says. ‘Whether its equality or health or friendship. There is so much power and struggle in this show.”

Scaling the mountain built by composer Jonathan Larson was a monumental climb, but Rodriguez says he faced each obstacle from the score to the set and costuming with every bit of the willful determination he imagines Larson exhibited during his own process. It is always a tightrope walk for directors to infuse their own voice into someone else’s work while striving to maintain the integrity of the original material. “That’s the most appealing thing to me as a director when the material is so strong, so well-known. It’s really ground breaking,” he says. “As a director, I really wanted to tell the story in the best light for the space it’s told in and the audience it’s being told for.”

Rodriguez says he looked beyond the mold shaped by the original characters to afford his cast with the opportunity to tell their own story. The conversational strength of the music speaks to familiar audiences and encourages a new generation of fans to find their own voices and fight for what they believe in. “I really wanted our actors to make it their story, to take what the original case did on stage and be inspired by it. I am so in love with them. What they are doing is so different. They are really digging into these characters,” he says. “I think that being inspired by the original, people will feel that they are being true to the original. People that have seen the show will see things in a way they never have before.”

Rodriguez admits to taking certain creative liberties that he hopes will help add depth to the original ideas behind some of the scenes. Since the production relies solely on the conversational nature of the music to tell the stories, he says the 18-person cast was open to incorporating some unique visual touches to represent the same ideas in 2014.

He often thinks of Larson as he directs, blocking scenes and putting himself into the story to imagine what his natural reaction would be. He thinks of Larson sitting in his apartment at his keyboard, constructing the melodies and phrasing that still inspire millions of people so many years after his tragic 1996 death. “I picture him as an artist creating this, what he must have been going through writing about losing people that you love,” Rodriguez says. “He spent seven years working on it then he dies in his apartment on opening night. He got this so right, so much right that it takes your breath away,” he says of the composer’s unwavering commitment to his work despite the constant chorus of those telling him it would never find success.

If Larson could feel the far-reaching hands of his work, Rodriguez hopes that he would have peace that all of his efforts, dedication, and refusal to accept anything less than what he believed to be right was not done in vain. He would feel the deserving applause, lifted up by the memories of his artistic counterparts and the souls of his lost friends who continue to give voice to the voiceless in an eternal thumbs up for the ages.

About Liza Mitchell