“How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?”
This lyric from the titular song seems fitting when talking about the 20th-anniversary tour of RENT. Since its opening in 1996, RENT has found its way into people’s hearts with themes of love and acceptance. A pioneer for contemporary musicals, the show continues to resonate with theatre audiences more than two decades later.
RENT‘s narrative follows a group of struggling artists living in New York City under the 1990s AIDS epidemic. The show deals with social issues such as addiction and homophobia. Over the course of one year the character Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, records his friends as they experience fear, loss, hope and love.
Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has undergone countless adaptions over the years. Amid the show’s 12-year Broadway run, even a feature film starring several members of the original cast was released. After closing in 2008, the show eventually returned to Broadway in 2011. Currently, RENT is enjoying another national tour including this week’s run at DC’s National Theatre from November 12-17.
One of the actors touring with the production is Samantha Mbolekwa who plays the role of Joanne Jefferson. Joanne is a high strung lawyer who struggles with the flirtatious behavior of her performance artist girlfriend, Maureen.
“What I love about Joanne is what she really wants to be able to do is show on the outside what she can’t necessarily [show] because of her job and the way she was brought up, she can through hanging out with these really great artistic people,” Mbolekwa says of her character.
Mboleskwa’s favorite song to perform is “Take Me or Leave Me.” The flippant track comes at a pivotal point in Joanne and Maureen’s relationship.
“It’s iconic,” she says. “Me and Kelsey [Sweigard], who is my Maureen, have so much fun doing it together. I think we both keep each other on our toes. Every time that song rolls around, I just really look forward to it.”
It’s difficult to take note of RENT‘s tracklist without mentioning “Seasons of Love.” The tune has gone on to create a legacy of its own outside of the musical. The song asks “How do you measure a year?” and ultimately decide that life should be measured in love. On the song’s popularity, Mboleskwa believes it’s due to the big question the song is asking.
“How do you measure a year? In the song, you’re offered so many ways. I think that’s a question that sometimes people don’t even think about and then to hear it – it kinda puts you in your spot and makes you think. It has such a positive message.”
“Seasons of Love” also serves as a tribute song to RENT’s creator Jonathan Larson, who unexpectedly passed away the morning of the show’s first preview performance. The story of his life was chronicled in a documentary entitled No Day But Today: The Story of RENT. His work lives on in The Jonathan Larson Collection at The Library of Congress.
In addition to cementing Larson’s legacy as a great playwright, RENT also started the trend of rush tickets. Still used by popular plays and musicals, such as Hamilton, fans known as Rent-heads could receive discounted tickets to see the show.
According to Mboleskwa, this is a tradition the national tour still follows today,
“There are rush tickets for RENT, a lot of people don’t know that if you show up to the theatre two hours before, you can get front row tickets for $25. It all started when it was originally created in the 90s, it was such a hot commodity that people were camping outside of the theatre.”
In RENT’s 20-plus years on the stage, much of it remains true to the show’s original vision. The costumes, set and music are all taken from the original production. Mboleskwa explains that this is because the original creative team behind the show is still working to make it as memorable as ever.
“I think RENT is still relevant 20 years later because there are still reoccurring problems that the story had back then that are still happening,” she says. “People will always want to feel accepted and loved, and the show is all about acceptance and love.”
The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT is at the National Theatre from November 12- 17. Showtimes vary. Tickets $54-$114. For more information about the run, click here.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com