It has taken a few years, but the wait is over as the 20th anniversary touring production of the musical Rent rolls into Vancouver for a limited engagement next week.
Originally bursting onto the scene in 1996, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical would go on to become the 11th longest running show on Broadway.
More than two decades later, Jonathan Larson’s rock reinvention of the Puccini’s La Bohème continues to resonate with its story of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out.
In advance of the show’s arrival in Vancouver, we find out from musical director Mark Binns what goes into a bringing a show like Rent on tour and what audiences can expect from this 20th anniversary production.
This interview has been edited.
What is the best part of touring with a show like Rent?
Rent is definitely one of those shows that most people, musical theatre fans or not, instantly recognize. The composer, Jonathan Larson, completely revolutionized what musical theatre could do. It turned the convention of Broadway upside down and forced people to think about storytelling through songs in a brand new way. It accomplished in the 90s what Hamilton is accomplishing now, sending shock waves through the community and establishing such a strong cult following.
That I get to be a part of this iconic piece 24 years later is something I do not take lightly. The impact it has on today’s audiences is undeniably just as strong and its themes are just as relevant as it was when it first premiered.
Apart from all of that, it’s just fun to play. Who doesn’t want to get paid to perform rock and roll for a living eight times a week?
Have you toured with other musicals? If so, what makes them different from a show like Rent?
I have only toured with one other production. I toured a couple of years ago with Motown: The Musical. However, I have served as musical director for many non-touring productions including Jersey Boys, Hairspray, West Side Story, Les Miserables, and others.
I guess the ones that would be the most different would be the jukebox musicals like Motown and Jersey Boys. These shows tell a story through the popular songs of specific artists. In Rent, we tell the story through original music, written specifically with our story in mind. Rent could not rely on popular songs to draw an audience in and sell a show. It had to capture an audience with an entirely new catalog of material. Luckily for all of us, the material is brilliant and resonates with an audience so deeply.
Another aspect that is different is the band placement. Most shows I have done in the past were performed from either an orchestra pit or underneath the stage or, sometimes, in an entirely different isolated room. In Rent, our five-piece band is amidst the action on stage.
At the beginning of the show, Mark comes out on stage with his camera and acknowledges both the cast and band as major players of the story we are about to tell. The band is every bit as much a character in Rent as Mark or Roger or Mimi or Joanne. This allows for a much more visceral interaction with both the cast and the audience.”
What is the trickiest part of Rent’s score for the musicians and cast?
I would say with any show with the recognition that Rent has, the trickiest part for any of us is to put our own stamp on it while still maintaining respect and staying true to the piece that everyone knows and loves.
Part of what makes Rent so special is how beautifully written it is. Everything you need, every emotion you must pull from, is all there in the material. It is written in a way where you don’t have to try all that hard to get the message across.
I think it is essential to tread the line of performing the material while not overdoing it. From a vocal standpoint, Rent is not an easy sing. Parts of the show are written very high and very much in a rock “belt” style. So part of my job is consistently checking in with the actors to make sure they are comfortable and able to execute the material in a healthy way eight times a week.
Also, Rent is not a traditional book musical where you sing a song, then there is a scene with dialogue, then another song, and then another scene. Instead, it is written completely sung-through rock opera style. It is a relentless two-and-a-half hour thrill ride.
Focus and stamina are so important. I find it essential to set that focus before I walk out on stage. I definitely have my quiet time of meditation in my dressing room before each show to ensure I am at the right mental, emotional, and energetic level to lead the show with the expertise, grace, and care it requires.
What part of the score do you think is the most beautifully composed and realized by the company?
This cast is full of phenomenal soloists that will blow you away, but I think one of their special strengths is the way they sing together as an ensemble.
I’ve definitely seen shows before where I can tell the cast doesn’t like each other. While they may be talented, there’s something off about the chemistry and the connections seem disingenuous.
This cast truly works well together both onstage and off. When you hear them sing together, you will know what I mean. It is clear that there is mutual respect for each other as humans and artists. You will feel as though you are hearing those iconic moments like the electric opening number and “Seasons of Love” for the first time.
They keep it fresh because they love the piece and they love each other.
Do you tour with all the musicians or do you hire local musicians in each city you tour?
We do not hire local musicians for this tour. Rent was originally orchestrated for a five-piece rock combo, and that orchestration holds true today.
There are four incredible musicians that travel with the cast and crew full-time. Apart from me serving as conductor/keyboardist, we have David Malachowski on guitar, Paul O’Keefe on keys and guitar, Jordan Richards on bass, and Jeff Snider on drums. These guys have all played Rent for years. They know the show intimately inside and out, and I could not ask for a better group to play with every night.
What are some of the factors you have to contend with in playing so many different venues on tour?
Every venue is different in terms of size and acoustics. Every time we arrive at a new venue, we do an extensive sound check with both the band and cast. We run specific sections of the show to make sure we are hearing exactly what we need to hear.
We also have to conduct rehearsals from time to time while we are on the road. We have many swings and understudies to prepare as well as keeping everyone in check.
Different cities and venues have union rules to abide by, so there is a level of collaborating with each venue to accommodate our rehearsal needs.
Why should someone not miss this production?
You must experience Rent if you never have before. And you must return to Rent even if you have experienced it many times before.
I talk to “Rentheads” at the stage door who have literally seen the show hundreds of times, but they are still in tears because of the undeniable message of the show. There are many words you could use to describe Rent, but if someone were to ask me to sum it up in one word, I would say “love”.
It’s all about love and sacrifice and realizing what it is to respect and help those around us who are struggling and in need of love. It was virtually unheard of in the 90s to discuss LGBTQIA+ issues on a Broadway stage, especially in musical form. But Jonathan Larson accomplished it unapologetically and beautifully in Rent. These are issues that are still at the forefront of today’s hot topics. And in some places of this world, they are still considered taboo issues. We are blazing trails in some of these very places on this tour.
Nina Simone told us that art is supposed to reflect the times. Rent does just that. It not only entertains, but it also educates, enlightens, and forces us to examine how we are living our lives. Are we living each moment with reckless abandon as if it’s our last? Are we living life filled with regrets, or are we taking risks? Are we looking past our own noses and loving and respecting our neighbors? Are we inspiring ourselves and others to express, communicate, and create?
These are questions that you will be faced with when you come see our show. These are the questions Jonathan Larson wanted to illuminate. I am so blessed and honored to help carry on this legacy. And I hope you will come be a part of it.
The 20th anniversary tour of Rent plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre September 17-22. Visit vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.