Two decades since its New York premiere, the rock musical Rent has gone on to claim a plethora of accolades: from a Pulitzer Prize for Drama to a Tony Award for Best Musical and Original Score. Some may say it’s gone out of fashion, that its backdrop against the looming HIV/AIDS pandemic and bohemian characterization are strictly rooted in 90s’ New York. Upon the arrival of its 20th anniversary, however, we would like to reintroduce this theatrical treasure and its everlasting appeal to the Shanghai audience.
For anyone familiar with Puccini’s operatic work La Bohème, Rent is a daring adaptation celebrating the relentless pursuit of creativity and love, which everyone can relate to. At its core lies the story of youth, poverty, romance, and coping with premature death in New York’s East Village towards the end of the 20th century. The story follows a year in the life of a group of friends whose paths inextricably converge under a shared passion for art, despite financial difficulties and the transmission of HIV/AIDS. The late composer Jonathan Larson had lived through these conditions before Rent launched in 1996: feeding on porridge, shivering in an unheated apartment, while helplessly losing one friend after another to the disease.
Underscoring the tragedies and hardships depicted in Rent is Larson’s heartfelt message that at the end of the day, art and love will triumph. The widely popularized ‘Seasons of Love,’ articulates the value of 365 days of life, manifested in lyrics such as “Let's celebrate / Remember a year in the life of friends.” Additionally, the musical genres in Rent mash together tango, rock and a soul-tingling dose of pop, rendering the show a powerful homage to those who passed.
Twenty years on, Rent has made its way to Shanghai, one of the most expensive cities in the world to rent an apartment. What are the chances it resonates with burgeoning artists and creatives here, and what’s the role of love in a sprawling metropolis like ours? What we know for sure is that Rent will leave you pondering on those questions and, if anything, humming its catchy tunes well after the curtain falls.