On March 11th, I caught “The Broadway Tour” of Jonathan Larson’s Epic masterpiece, RENT, hit San Diego’s Civic Theatre. I went with my friend Louie Taylor. Part of the main reason I wanted to go see RENT was because the main draw of the tour is that it has been billed as featuring original cast members, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal who would be reprising their roles as Mark and Roger respectively. An unadvertised bonus is that another original cast member, Gwen Stewart, is also reprising her role in the tour as one of the ensemble players as a variety of characters and featured solo vocalist during “Seasons Of Love.”
As the first tour since RENT closed on Broadway in September 2008, it seems all the more poignant to see such a high profile tour with Original cast members Rapp and Pascal on board. They’re no strangers to coming back to the roles that made them Broadway stars as they both were part of the original workshop shows, transferred the show to Broadway and then later to London, then recreated their roles in the film version of RENT in 2005, and then for a limited engagement in Summer 2007 returned to Broadway according to BroadwayWorld.com. These roles have been a part of their lives off and on for the last 15 years. In the interview in the Playbill handed out at the performance Adam Pascal suspects “when we’re done with this tour, I have a strong suspicion that this will be it for me and RENT. At some point I am going to be too old to do the part.”
In a way, seeing the production with the three original cast members felt like the show had come full circle for me. Even though I’ve never seen any of the Original cast in a live performance of RENT, the original cast recording has been a frequently played cast album in my life since I originally saw the show when it had it’s West Coast Premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997.
The main reason I saw the show was a friend of mine at the time, Stefan Boer, a fellow Roxette fan that I met online from the Netherlands, convinced me to purchase the Original Broadway Cast album for RENT. He was so enthusiastic about the cast album that I bought it. But I personally thought it was dreadful and didn’t like it much initially. But Stefan was making a special trip to New York, just to go see RENT on Broadway. Well I thought that was a long way to go to just to see a stage show, so maybe there must have been something to it. Because RENT‘s director, Michael Grief, was the Artistic Director for the La Jolla Playhouse here in San Diego, the La Jolla Playhouse was going to be the host of the first production of RENT outside of Broadway. So it seemed if my friend was going to hop on a plane and cross the Atlantic Ocean just to see RENT, then it seemed silly for me not to get in my car and drive 30 miles to see a production.
Well at the time I couldn’t really afford the regular seat tickets, so I took part in one of the biggest features of RENT productions, the opportunity to get highly discounted tickets for bench seating set up in front of the front row. The tickets were $20 a piece as opposed to close to $90 a ticket for the rows behind the benches. Although at the La Jolla Playhouse, part of the process of getting those tickets involved some camping out overnight from the night before until the box office opened where it would be first come, first serve tickets.
I had never “camped out for tickets” before so it was an interesting experience. I had never considered myself much of a theatre fan, but a lot of the people camping out for tickets were big theatre fans. So a lot of the folks had stories about shows they’ve seen and shows they love the music to share during the course of the night. I hadn’t seen anything besides a high school production of Fiddler On The Roof so I couldn’t contribute much, but fortunately as an ABBA fan, I did have something I could relate with them on, and that was the musical Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote with Tim Rice called, Chess. Through Chess, I was able relate to their love for showtunes, and some introduced me to music from other shows like Titanic and Ragtime, and I introduced them to some songs from Björn and Benny’s musical Kristina Från Duvemåla as they wouldn’t have been likely to have heard it yet. This still a couple of years before ABBA’s catalogue became showtunes themselves in Mamma Mia!
Despite not enjoying the original cast album of RENT without having seen the show, I was absolutely stunned and amazed by the show once I did see it in La Jolla. The cast in La Jolla was absolutely amazing. Mark was played by Neil Patrick Harris and Roger was played by Christian Mena of the Canadian band, Maracujah. Angel was played by Wilson Cruz who later when on to play the role on Broadway. I thought the cast I saw sounded a lot better than the original cast, but once I’d seen the show, I was now able to enjoy the original cast album because I had memories of brilliant performances to accompany those songs.
I liked the show so much, I ended up camping out for tickets an additional five times (except in those cases, I just showed up in the early hours of the morning and waited instead of camping out all night.) I wanted to share the experience of RENT with others so I took some co-workers with me and on one occasion I took my mom with me. In total I ended up seeing the show six and a half times before the end of the run in La Jolla. The half time is because I snuck in at the intermission on the final night of the run in La Jolla. The reason I did this is because I had just gotten Maracujah’s album in from Canada the day of the final performance and I wanted to have Christian Mena autograph it for me.
It seems that a great cast truly makes RENT a magical experience. On a couple of subsequent tour stops in San Diego over the years following the transition to the new millennium, I went and saw the show. However, these casts were a little lackluster and this resulted in making RENT feel like a very dated period piece. I didn’t enjoy the show as much as it had moved me back during the La Jolla Playhouse run. So I’d leave the shows feeling nostalgic but ultimately disappointed.
By the time the movie came around in 2005, I went to see it, and with almost the entire original cast re-assembled it felt like a nice document to showcase the original talent behind the original cast album. But the changes made to the lyrics for the film version to account for the spacing out of the first act of the show to encompass several days instead of one night as in the show, made for a quite awkward listening experience. When you’re used to Mimi singing about being back before “Christmas Day” in “Out Tonight” it makes the change in the movie version of the song to “New Year’s Day” stick out like a sore thumb. It feels wrong and ultimately I just play the original Broadway cast album instead. I do like the movie, but it still didn’t quite capture the enthusiasm I once had for the stage show. The film does make me appreciate the talent the original cast had, so I didn’t hesitate to make it a priority to see RENT again when it was announced Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal were going to tour with the show and it was coming to San Diego.
I was also grateful to purchase the recently released Blu-Ray (also available on DVD) of RENT‘s final performance on Broadway. The final performance wonderfully captures the stage show and I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it captured for posterity sake. But my only complaint is that it’s a new cast with the exception of Tracie Thoms (who played Joanne in the film and reprises the role on stage), I haven’t watched it enough to fully appreciate their performance as it’s a matter of getting used to some different voices in these roles. They do a spectacular job and I’m sure over time this version will become my preferred version of RENT.
In any case, the true stars of both the movie version and final performance on Broadway DVDs of RENT are the bonus documentaries. The documentary on the movie DVD covers the creation of RENT and really captures what a labor of love it was bringing Jonathan Larson’s vision to the stage. The documentary on the final performance DVD captures the legacy of RENT and what a mark it has left on Broadway. If there are any must haves for any RENT collection, it is the Original Broadway Cast album, and BOTH the movie and final performance DVDs. You need the documentaries to help compliment the performances contained in the DVDs to really capture the essense of RENT.
I am just very pleased that I got the chance to see RENT on this tour with Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. The cast on the tour really helped make the show feel as current and vibrant as the show did when I first saw it back in 1997. I wasn’t expecting to be hit with such a powerful performance and it’s nice to welcome back such great songs as “Seasons Of Love”, “Another Day”, and “No Day But Today” back into my life. It’s been a long time since those songs felt relevant to me. And yes, my name is Ryan and I will admit I am a “RENT-Head.”
Don’t miss the tour if it’s coming to a city near you. This may be the last chance ever to see Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in the roles of Mark and Roger. Look for tickets here with TicketMaster. Also if you need or want to add the original Broadway cast album to your collection or the movie and/or final performance DVDs or Blu-Rays, get them below at Amazon.com