How can it be that Rent is 20? It seemed for a while, at least to me, that Mimi Marquez would forever stay 19, dangling off of a fire escape in her blue rubber pants. Jonathan Larson’s landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical redefined musical theater and inspired an entire generation of theatergoers. In celebration of this milestone, Fiddlehead Theatre—for eight performances only—is bringing the East Village to Boston’s Back Bay.
Rent is a musical theater phenomenon, the kind that we only see every couple of decades or so. It electrified New York when it opened in 1996, redefining what a musical could be and what a musical’s audience could look like. The cast was also racially diverse, long before “diversity” was a theatrical buzzword. Rent’s influence on the art form is clear, most recently—and notably—in Hamilton, which is experiencing the kind of once-in-a-lifetime success that Rent enjoyed 20 years ago.
“My choreographer and I were both in New York during those years, and it was kind of the musical of the generation. It was on the cover of Time, it was on 60 Minutes; it was a phenomenon,” said Stacey Stephens, Fiddlehead’s associate producing artistic director, who is also directing its production of Rent. “For so many years the Broadway musical was chorus boys and tap shoes. All of the sudden, Rent became something that spoke to a generation in their language and in their music. We all sort of look at its as groundbreaking, and it does become part of one’s life.”
Unsurprisingly, Rent was an extraordinary part of my life, to be sure. I am only partly embarrassed to admit that I saw the Broadway production 21 times before I stopped counting. I even found myself inside of Larson’s former apartment, where, on a cold January evening in 1996, he died suddenly after attending the final dress rehearsal of Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop. Larson never got to experience the astounding success of Rent, and his sudden passing forged an even stronger bond between the show’s original cast members. Their personal connection to both the show and Larson came through in their performances, a feeling of electricity that was never able to be duplicated by any of their many replacements.
For Stephens, his first memory of Rent came when he was on tour with Les Miserables and a friend had gotten a bootleg cassette tape of the entire show. “We listened to that cassette tape until it about wore out,” he said with a laugh. “We did AIDS benefits across the country for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and we would use ‘Seasons of Love.’ At that point there were no transcripts to buy, so we listened to it and tried to make out the words,” he recalled. Looking back now, he’s pretty sure they weren’t all correct.
“The luxury that directors and producers have of doing a show that has already been done before is that you can look at it with a fresh set of eyes and go, ‘You know what, that part didn’t ever quite sit right,’” Stephens said. “We have the luxury of now, 20 years later, saying that maybe we could fill the story out a little bit more and answer some of those questions.”
The first auditions for Rent were held a year ago, and while I spoke to Stephens only a few days into the rehearsal process, casting was his biggest challenge thus far. “It was the challenge of finding really good, strong singer-actors that have the vocal dynamics of this score,” Stephens said. “That was the biggest hurdle.”
There is also a responsibility that comes with reviving a show like Rent: Sso many have deep, specific feelings about how it should be done. Stephens told me that this will be the Rent that everyone wants it to be, but that “bringing a story to life with new breath but keeping it true to its original” presents its own unique challenge.
Rent is also a transitional show of sorts for Fiddlehead, whicho recently announced that itthey would be parting ways with Dorchester’s Strand Theatre in favor of the more visible, centrally located Shubert Theatre. Originally scheduled to play the Strand, Rent will instead be presented at the Back Bay Events Center, a first for Fiddlehead. ItsTheir next production, Showboat, will be itstheir first at the Shubert.
“What we’re doing,” said Stephens, “and I will say this immodestly—, nobody really, minus A.R.T. and the Huntington, are doing what we’re doing. We’re doing big shows: our West Side Story had a cast of 29 and an orchestra of 22. Nobody’s doing that in town, and that was part of the problem looking for venues downtown. So when the Shubert opened, we were thrilled because it was a space large enough to accommodate all those pieces. We need to be seen. We do good work on a scale that nobody else in town is doing.”
Stephens’ passion for Fiddlehead and its future is infectious and exciting. I, for one, am thrilled about this good news, particularly in a year that has been riddled with uncertainty surrounding the BU Theatre, the Colonial Theatre, and the Boston Lyric Opera. Stephens teased that, for next season, Fiddlehead will be presenting one classic musical and one newer piece.
“There’s nothing more exciting than good, live theatrer,” Stephens said. “It’s an exciting time. We’re on a really great trajectory with what’s happening in the company. We’re happy to be able to move forward and make the sort of steps we’re making towards our future.”
RENT. RUNS 2.5-2.21 AT FIDDLEHEAD THEATRE COMPANY, PERFORMING AT JOHN HANCOCK HALL AT THE BACK BAY EVENTS CENTER, 180 BERKELEY ST., BOSTON. FIDDLEHEADTHEATRE.COM