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I was in a lot of plays in high school, most of them written by my drama teacher and loosely inspired by more popular works so we didn’t have to pay royalties. For example, Titanic 2: The Aftermath. Which is to say: I have both a deep respect for the theatrical arts and a deep ignorance of actual real musicals seen by real people.
So it was just last night that I finally saw Rent for the first time, arguably 20 years too late. The iconic cusp-of-the-Millennium musical is here on a very limited run—September 17 through 22—at the QE Theatre as part of Broadway Across Canada. (Other upcoming shows include crowd-pleasers Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress.)
It’s interesting to watch something so of-its-time so far out of context—in 2019, Rent is really a period piece. Not just in the way that it spotlights the cruel realities of the AIDS crisis or the bold fashion choices (will I ever love anyone the way 1996 loved pleather?), but in its exploration of that crippling, late-’90s fear of being a sell-out.
Here in our era of spon-con and personal branding and the glorification of the side-hustle, it seems almost absurd to see these characters refuse, out of principle, to get paid for their creative skills. If we’ve learned anything as a culture over the past two decades, it’s that you can work for a corporation and make your own movies.
On the surface, it’s a surprisingly earnest play for something steeped in Gen X trappings—so many songs about the power of love from a generation allegedly “steeped in irony and detachment”—so I keep wondering if I was watching it through the right lens or asking the right questions. Are we supposed to be on Mark’s side, or is he a voyeur into poverty who should be criticized for slumming it to give himself an air of authenticity?
Other questions that were running through my head were less about the overall themes in the Tony-winning play and more about logistics: Is it really that unreasonable for their landlord to ask for rent after putting it off for two years? How can I focus on this candle song when they haven’t actually specified how much said rent is? Is this whole play sponsored by Tourism Santa Fe and that’s the real commentary on capitalism?
Overall, it’s a lot to chew on (what was stopping Mark from working at a coffee shop, exactly?), but the depth is probably why this scrappy little success story has had such staying power. Well, that or the songs: it’s hard to resist the melodrama and the touring cast here digs into the overwrought emotion with glee (and some serious pipes).
I was too busy as a 15-year-old playing a breakout role in our school’s Grease rip-off to learn how proper theatre criticism works, but much like our drama teacher didn’t let the risk of copyright infringement get in the way of writing a hand-jive dance number of his own, I’m going to go for it anyways: I think this little Rent show is going to do allllll right. But if that’s not for you, I’m sure there’s something on at North Surrey Secondary right now that would make for a fine substitute.
Rent at the Queen Elizabeth TheatreSeptember 17 to 22, 2019Advance tickets at vancouver.broadway.com (limited $25 day-of rush tickets available, too!)