20 years of refusing to pay RENT: The Broadway rock musical comes to Iowa City

As RENT comes to Iowa City for its 20th anniversary tour, the DI looks at its history and impact on musical theater.

The start of this month will bring a different kind of “rent” to Iowa City.

The Rent 20th anniversary tour will stop at Hancher for three performances throughout Oct. 4 and 5. Rent is a rock musical that follows the story of seven artists trying to survive in New York during the aftermath of the first wave of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s.

Written by the late Jonathan Larson, Rent hit the stage in 1996 and was hailed as a game changer for musicals. It has since won a Pulitzer as well as four Tony Awards and has been cited by Lin Manuel Miranda as a source of inspiration for musical phenomenon Hamilton.

Kelsee Sweigard, the actor who plays Maureen in the production, said that for her, the role is a dream come true.

“Maureen was my first-ever dream role,” she said. “I discovered the show when I discovered musical theater altogether when I was 14, and Maureen was always … I think I was so taken aback by Idina Menzel’s voice on the cast album.”

Sweigard said that while she loves it, the role is not without its challenges.

“It’s been a big challenge in the best of ways, because it’s just a big personality moment,” she said. “There are so many incredible women who’ve played the role, on Broadway and on the tours, and then you’re stepping into this iconic character’s shoes, and you want to make it your own but also serve justice to the women who have played her before you.”

Because it’s the 20th anniversary tour, the production aims to do a revival of the original show, with the same costumes, same directions, and the same choreographer and associate director from the 1996 show.

©Amy Boyle Photography
Contributed photo.

“They know how to put the show on different people and how the characters live on different people,” Sweigard said. “With their help, I was able to get the little keystone moments that they know they always want. For example, with ‘Over the Moon,’ it’s such an out-there piece, but they say, ‘OK, if you just have this moment, this moment and this moment, we’ll be happy. Fill in the blanks in between with whatever you come up with, and we’ll let you know how we feel.’”

Along with big characters, Rent puts a diverse cast in front of audiences, something that had not been done to such a degree at the time.

“We have Jonathan Larson to thank that he put characters that had not previously been represented by Broadway musicals in a Broadway musical. He put people of color in a musical who were dealing with things that people of color didn’t get the chance to talk about,” Sweigard said. “They didn’t have a platform to talk about their struggles with love and loss, their struggles of being gay, their struggle with being HIV/AIDS positive. People came to see this show, and they felt represented.”

Megan Gogerty, a playwright and lecturer in the UI Theater Department, said Rent was unique for being both able to attract young audiences at a time when musical theater was on the decline and for making a lot of money while addressing serious societal issues.

Along with a story of financial hardship and artistic integrity, Rent addresses the AIDS crisis that the U.S. government had failed to respond to.

“AIDS was terrifying, especially in the Broadway community, and among arts communities in general,” Gogerty said. “AIDS was a plague that destroyed whole generations, giant swaths; it ripped through the Broadway community and musical theater community and just decimated it. It’s shocking how many people died from AIDS, and it’s also shocking how little our government cared or did anything about it.”

Gogerty said that while the crisis killed thousands in the early 1980s, the government failed to acknowledge it right away. The first government report on AIDS came out in 1981, according to NBC, but President Reagan would not publicly mention AIDS until 1985. By 1995, AIDS was the largest killer in men aged 25 to 44 in the U.S., according to NBC.

“The reason the federal government didn’t do anything is because it was widely received as being a disease that affected LGBT people, and those were people that our society didn’t value, straight up didn’t value them,” Gogerty said. “[They] thought perhaps that maybe they deserved it, that it was a cancer from God, that it was God’s punishment for their deviant lifestyle. So there was all this demoralizing about this contagious illness that was really devastating and difficult.”

Nowadays, the medical community has made great progress in dealing with HIV and AIDS. According to AIDSinfo.nih.gov, medicines such as PrEP can prevent the spread of HIV, and antiretroviral therapy is used for those infected to dramatically slow the disease and prolong the life of those infected. In March, the New York Times reported that a second individual was reported to have entered long-term remission of HIV, as the promise of a cure comes closer with medical advances.

Gogerty said that Rent managed to address the AIDS epidemic and issues of LGBTQ rights while also offering a compelling story and a fun score.

“Here comes Rent, which is really hitting these themes that LBGT people have worth and dignity, that AIDS is a crisis that deserves our mourning, deserves our sadness and our grief, rather than our derision and disgust, and had this kicking rock score that was exciting,” she said. “All of those things together make it catch fire.”

Rob Cline, the director of marketing and communications for Hancher, agreed that when Rent emerged on the scene, it changed the game.

“When Rent first hit, it was like Hamilton in the sense that it sort of changed people’s perspectives on what could be done in musical theater,” he said. “Here was a legitimate rock ’n’ roll score, touching on important social-justice questions around AIDS, and poverty, and artistic expression, and those sorts of things. It just really resonated with the culture when it came out.”

©Amy Boyle Photography
Contributed photo.

Along with this, Cline said, the unexpected death of Larson, who died of an aneurysm right before the show hit the stage, added to the legend of the musical.

“Here’s this master work. We all wonder what Jonathan Larson might have gone on to create,” Cline said. “We will never know, but we have this show that reflects the remarkable contribution he was poised to make to Broadway and to theater in general.”

Over the years, Larson’s original work has had a variety of tours throughout the United States, productions around the world in 25 different languages, a film adaptation in 2005, and a live production on Fox in 2017. Cline said the production has managed to appeal to new audiences since 1996.

“It maintains its popularity both with long-term fans of the show and, for example, I have a daughter in high school who just adores this show, who wasn’t born until 10 years after the show hit stages,” he said. “It’s still relevant, the themes are still relevant, and it’s a great show all in all. We’re excited to have the opportunity to bring it back and introduce it to potentially new audiences, particularly among UI students.”