Death. Romance. Humor. Ensemble. Tension. Community. Drugs. Family. Love. All of these words could be used to describe Jonathan Larson’s hit 1996 rock musical “Rent” — which the Binghamton University theatre department is the latest to produce its own version of.
“Rent” tells the story of a group of friends in New York City in the early 1990s as they struggle with finding their artistic voice, drug addiction, love and, of course, paying rent. The show’s history is full of tragedy, as Larson died the night before the premiere of the show in 1996. Despite this, “Rent” was a huge hit, winning a Pulitzer Prize, multiple Tony awards and even receiving a film adaptation in 2005.
The BU theatre department’s adaptation of “Rent” was directed by Brandon Wright and Tommy Iafrate, both faculty of the theatre department. Wright, an assistant professor of acting and directing, spoke about what attracted him to the show.
“I think what drew me to it was the challenge of telling this story today,” Wright said. “And trying to find the overlaps in the themes and the message. And the excitement of characters that were close to the actor’s ages.”
One of the trickiest parts about adapting “Rent” for a modern audience is that the show is a period piece set in the 1990s.
“With the 1990s, even though it was a different time, it’s still close enough to where some things are really particular, so we had to do our due diligence with our research and make sure that we weren’t going too contemporary or too far back,” Wright said. “So that was a challenge, but also a blessing.”
Fortunately, the similarities and parallels between the periods of “Rent” today facilitated strong connections between the actors and characters. Patrick Saint Ange, a senior double-majoring in sociology and English, plays Mark in the show, one of the principal characters.
“[Mark] is super relatable in this idea of a character who has this immense responsibility of shaping the narrative about his friends’ lives,” Ange said. “It’s something that every filmmaker has to grapple with — why does your voice matter? That’s a big thing that’s helped me connect to the character because I very much relate to that.”
Beyond the characters, the music of “Rent” is important to the show as the rock undertones help build the realistic and fun, yet tragic atmosphere of the show. However, the many different types of music presented in “Rent” make the show feel unique and keep it fresh throughout its runtime.
“I love different things about different songs,” Wright said. “So I love the jazziness of ‘Santa Fe,’ the honesty of ‘Will I’ and the passion of ‘Rent,’ the opening number.”
Anna Waldbaum, a guitarist in the pit orchestra for “Rent” and a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, has a unique role in that she gets to both participate in the show and witness firsthand the themes and emotional core of the show. She described the show in just one sentence.
“A group of artists trying to find who they are in terms of self-identity, relationships, love, hate and trying to navigate all that,” Waldbaum said.
Likewise, Alondra Schuck, a senior majoring in sociology, plays Mimi in the show, another main character. She spoke about what being a part of “Rent” means to her.
“‘Rent’ has been my favorite musical for many years,” Schuck said. “I think the reason is just that I relate so much to all the characters, and the story is so gritty and emotional and raw. And I just think it’s the best musical ever.”
Despite the almost 30-year gap between the debut of “Rent” and BU’s production of it, the characters and themes are so potent and real that the performers and audience alike can relate to them.
“I would say ‘Rent’ is all about defiance,” Ange said. “Everyone who’s familiar with ‘Rent’ understands the story of [Larson] and the idea of the artists who never really got to see the impact of their work. There is no day but today because tomorrow is not promised and yesterday is gone. So enjoy it now.”
The show runs for two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission between acts one and two, with shows at 8 p.m. on April 21, 22 and 28, and at 2 p.m. on April 23 and 30. Tickets can be purchased on the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts’ website.