Arts & Theater

After 20-plus years, ‘Rent’ will explore touchy subjects at shows in Folsom

Actors perform in a tourin version of “Rent.” The play will be in Folsom over the weekend.
Actors perform in a tourin version of “Rent.” The play will be in Folsom over the weekend. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The musical “Rent” has been revived for an international tour that includes a stop in Folsom at the Harris Center. The revival tour is directed by Evan Ensign, who’s currently in London. Ensign is especially knowledgeable about this theatrical property because he was an assistant director early in its Broadway run, some 23 years ago. (The tour, however, is advertised as the show’s “20th anniversary.”)

For Ensign and us, a key question is how the musical had changed since its inauguration in 1996, tragically on the eve of the sudden death of its creator, Jonathan Larson, from an aortic aneurism. Ensign acknowledged that most of the production’s sets and songs were the same, but the issues “Rent” raised had shifted significantly in the popular culture.

Of course, paying the rent is still a perennial problem for nearly everybody “who isn’t extremely rich,” as Ensign observed – especially in lower Manhattan, where the production is set, as well as in other prominent cities and tourist meccas where its director has lived: London, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. Sacramento wouldn’t be out of place in that conversation, either. Ensign suggested most of us are about “three weeks away from homelessness” if we measure our fiscal and domicile security against what’s in our bank accounts.

But the real change in “Rent” is the shifting role of AIDS in our culture, and the emergence from pariah status to acceptance of those who suffer from it, as well as more generally the LGBTQ community, the poor and people of color. When “Rent” first opened, AIDS was a lethal threat in America, particularly for those struggling – with their sexual identity, with finances, and with society. Many of the key seven characters had received a positive diagnosis for HIV and, in effect, were under a sentence of death. Since then, the advent of AZT (and other treatments for AIDS) has shifted this threat of mortality.

Now, when Ensign prepares new – and much younger – cast members for the production, he sympathetically educates them in the history of AIDS and shows documentaries about the epidemic, as well as emphasizing their need to reach into their own lives for suffering to connect empathetically with the characters they portray.

When the curtain goes up in “Rent,” its cast – tenants in a large building in the East Village – are confronted by their landlord Benny with a Christmas present: they have to pay rent for the first time. This should play well in Honolulu, which the tour visits at Christmas, after being also in Canada, the Midwest and the South. But the rent now suddenly due for the players is only the underlying basis for a variety of problems besetting the tenants, including AIDS, their love relationships and their artistic frustrations.

Ensign said the struggle is heightened for these artists. For example, when Roger the songwriter is whining about completing a song he doesn’t have 30 years to finish it or to live – he has three months. So do many of his fellow tenants, friends and lovers.

Of course, most of us can sympathize with someone confronted with paying rent. It’s a near-universal fact of life. But Ensign also emphasized this musical is also about the alternative meaning of “rent” – being torn asunder: the breaking apart which regularly tears at so many social and romantic relationships. The rent conundrum is also well known to so many in the arts, for whom income and job security are always on the verge of evaporating. Even the artists’ landlord, now trying to charge rent, is a former tenant and friend.

Among the production’s ironies and surprises was of course the sudden death of Jonathan Larson. “Rent” went on to earn a Pulitzer prize and Tony Award and ran on Broadway for over 12 years. Larson’s experience was sadly emblematic of artistic lives cut short early, a threat that hangs over so many of the characters in “Rent.”

Ensign said the memory of Larson remains significant, and the performances and cast are frequently attended and visited by his surviving relatives: Larson’s father, sister and nephew. Even though Ensign never met Larson, he has many friends from the early era of AIDS, and says half of his current friends are people he met over his long association in directing and producing the musical. Some of those friends were diagnosed with AIDS years ago and still survive.

“Rent” sports 43 songs, a stunning number, certainly when compared with say, “Oklahoma.” But Ensign said the songs “Tune Up A,” “Tune Up B,” and “Rent, for example” function as a single unit, and he renumbers the songs at about 20 because many are as brief as voice messages left on a phone.

If you go see ‘Rent’

Where: Harris Center, on the west side of Folsom Lake College campus in Folsom, facing East Bidwell Street.

When: Shows run Friday through Sunday, September 27-29, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m. and matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

Cost: Tickets run from $48-78.

Info and tickets: Call the box office at 916-608-6888.

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