By Allie Ward
“How can you measure the life of a woman or a man?”
That’s the pivotal question in the rock opera Rent, a gritty yet heartwarming story of a group of people in New York City’s East Village wrestling with poverty, disease, success and love.
With music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, the musical is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. A feature film in 2005 and a Broadway staple for many years, Rent recently ended its epic run on the Great White Way and now is coming to Rider as the newest Westminster College of the Arts production, directed by assistant professor Miriam Mills.
“I wanted to do a show the students could really relate to and really sink their teeth into,” Mills said. “And so, there were a couple of options that we had and Rent seemed to be the logical one. I didn’t even think I was going to be able to get the rights to it. We contacted the Rent people and they said there were two options — there’s a clean version and there’s a real version, the Broadway version. We decided to go for it.”
Go for it, they did. Rent illustrates sexual, harsh and controversial themes like homosexuality, the AIDS epidemic and drugs.
“It is the story of a group of young artists trying to live with, and occasionally die of, AIDS,” Mills said. “And it is how they cope with this disease and how this disease affects their lives and affects the choices that they make.”
Junior Nick Anastasia plays Mark Cohen, the narrator of the show.
“When stripped down to the skin and bones, this show is simply about people dealing with dark clouds,” he said. “It’s about a year in the life of an incredibly close group of friends, and the struggles, as well as the joy, that they experience together.”
Mark is an aspiring documentary filmmaker looking to make it big in New York City. He is the glue that holds the group together.
“Mark is definitely a free spirit and a caring friend to those that surround him, especially Roger,” Anastasia said.
Mark lives with his roommate Roger (played by senior Ryan Crimmins), a struggling musician whose glory days are over. Roger is coping with his girlfriend April’s recent death — she committed suicide after learning the couple was infected with HIV. Mark and Roger’s former roommate Benny (played by sophomore David Spadora) is now the landlord of their apartment, a position he assumed after marrying into a wealthy family and “selling out,” and is constantly reminding his now-tenants that the rent is due.
“[Benny] essentially embodies the commercialism and cutthroat America that threatens the Bohemian values of the show,” Spadora said. “He’s a headstrong, hardworking businessman, but he came from living like an artist under the same conditions as the other characters.”
Mark and Roger’s neighbor, Mimi (played by senior Abby Brown), is a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. She is also a drug addict with AIDS and eventually begins a tumultuous relationship with Roger, who is hesitant to get involved so soon after April’s death.
Meanwhile, another one of Mark and Roger’s former roommates, Collins (played by senior Kyrus Westcott), is back in town after a teaching gig at MIT. Collins is an anarchist, and also has AIDS. He meets, and falls in love with, Angel (played by sophomore Tyler Eley), a drag queen who also suffers from AIDS.
“Although [Angel] is ill with such a horrible disease, she is one of the most optimistic, caring, heartwarming people,” Eley said. “She tries to look at everything in a positive light and strives to make every single person around her happy. She has such an amazing outlook on life, and it has affected me both on and off stage [over] the past two months.”
Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (played by junior Heather Hussey), who dumped him for a lawyer named Joanne (played by sophomore Darranie Gibson), is a bisexual firecracker, always flirting with both men and women.
The show chronicles a year in the life of this group of diverse artists, as their lives entwine and they encounter both joy and tragedy, and deal with it together.
The music is one of the most powerful elements of Rent, according to Mills.
“It’s a wonderful show; it’s a spectacular show,” she said. “The music is amazing.”
With songs like the poignant “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Bohème,” a mock eulogy of the Bohemian lifestyle the group lives, Rent’s music is influential and moving, sure to leave the audience emotional.
This show is also an opportunity for students from the Westminster and Lawrenceville campuses to work together, something Mills is excited about.
“It’s a wonderful marriage between the students at Westminster and the students here on [the Lawrenceville] campus,” she said. “And that’s very exciting to see that it’s a real indication of the two programs, [and] I think we’re getting the best of both worlds.”
Mills is especially proud of her cast and confident they will execute a Broadway classic with the professionalism and experience of veteran actors.
“They’re amazing,” she said. “I have 28 kids in the cast and they are, without exception, some of the finest young people that I’ve ever worked with.”
Rent was particularly influential for some of the actors in Rider’s production.
“[It] has been a part of my life since hearing the soundtrack in middle school,” Spadora said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to be a part of something you have known and cared about for a long time.”
For Anastasia, the show was a motivation to enter the acting world.
“[This] is a show I’ve held close to my heart for years, mostly because it was the show that inspired me to begin pursuing musical theater,” he said.
Regardless of whether the audience is familiar with the plot, the show will be an experience to remember.
“We kept things in the show that Rent is famous for, but we also made it Rider’s very own,” Eley said. “I can’t wait to hear what people have to say about the show.”
When life is whizzing past, and the future full of unknowns, the group takes solace in knowing there is “no day but today.”