Last year I declared that I wanted to go to the theatre more, which possibly sounds easy enough however besides all the usual rain on your parade symptoms of chronic illness this wasn’t an easy endeavour for more personal reasons. For those that don’t know before I became unwell theatre was a huge part of my life, it was my passion as well as my chosen career. I was weeks away from finishing my stage management training and had a tour lined up when illness hit me like a wrecking ball and took so much with it. Going to the theatre was simply too hard emotionally (as well as physically) but 5 years down the line I really felt I was missing out.
Little did I know that when I booked to see a musical called Rent just how much of an effect it would have. When I booked my tickets I knew very little about the show I was simply excited that my local theatre was showing a well-known musical and thought it would be a great way to spend my 30th birthday and I was absolutely right. In fact seeing the show on such a significant birthday made it all the more poignant.
Like I said I knew very little about the show, apart from a friend saying “isn’t that the musical about drugs?” which didn’t fill me with much confidence that I was going to have an entertaining evening. However, the good thing about not knowing very much prior to seeing a show as well as not being as analytical or having my stage manager (hard) hat on is that I didn’t have many preconceptions. I could simply get lost in the storytelling and the magic that is live theatre.
Rent depicts the struggle of life in New York’s lower East side in the 1980s, the dichotomy between wealth and poverty and homelessness. As well as the ravages of drug addiction and the AIDS crisis. The characters are a diverse mix including drug addicts, a gay couple, a lesbian couple, a gender fluid character and an S&M dancer, with at least 4 of the main characters having AIDS. Sadly, society and the media can lead us to believe that these characters can teach us nothing except what not to do. Especially at that time and even though time has moved on and we’re seeing more positive and inclusive media with a slow shift in public attitudes there is still much stigma where too often people are judged by labels that have been thrust upon them and not for who they are as human beings.
And yet this is precisely what Rent does, here is a show using these diverse characters to show the very best of humanity and compassion, which ultimately goes to show that we should never judge a book by its cover. These characters have so little to give of material value, or outward signs of success that we are told we should aspire to, which is referenced in the song “what you own,” which tells us “when you’re living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own.” However, what they do have is an abundance of generosity of spirit and qualities of much more real value and human impact.
The overriding message of the show is to treasure life as the precious gift that it is, to make the most of each and every day because life can be all too short. That there is “no day but today.” To love unashamedly and to be kind and compassionate because, in the end, it’s not about “what you own” but the way you made people feel.
The show’s signature song Seasons of Love, which you can listen to (with lyrics) by the Rent 20th anniversary UK cast here (and I really recommend that you do) really encapsulates this theme. It’s sung directly to the audience and asks the question:
“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes (the number of minutes in a year)
How do you measure, measure a year?”
It also suggests that we should measure our lives in love. Because yes, life can be filled with tragedies, losses, illness, relationship breakdowns, struggles of all kinds but we do not have to let them define us or swallow us up. We can always choose to focus on life’s silver linings and to measure our lives in love. To celebrate love in all its forms relationships, our passions, family, friends and not forgetting self-love. Nor should we get so bogged down in routine and repetition, going from a to b without stopping to take in the sights and counting our blessings. We shouldn’t get so caught up in achieving the next thing that in the meantime we forget to live.
Of course, I really had an affinity with this message. Life is far from what I imagined it would be like at 30 however, what gets me through is choosing to focus on the silver linings, not measuring my life in all the bad but in all the good and surrounding myself with the people that help me to measure my life in love. Watching Rent really cemented this for me.It gave me a chance to reflect and count my blessings, of which there are still so many despite my circumstances. It made me realise that although life wasn’t particularly treating me right that I was still living it right.
When I left the theatre, with the songs firmly stuck in my head just begging to be sung out loud, I wanted to know even more and what I discovered gave me such a deep respect for the show and it’s creator Jonathan Larson. In many ways, Rent is a memorial to Jonathan and the way he lived his life, unafraid, head on and with huge compassion for everyone he came across and sadly the show’s themes are extremely prophetic because Jonathan died on the day of Rent’s first preview of a cardiac aneurism. Meaning that he never got to see his labour of love performed beyond a dress rehearsal, he never got to celebrate the show’s huge success as it was performed all over the world or see how the show has influenced many lives, introducing a whole new audience to the theatre. Jonathan is the ultimate reminder that there really is “no day but today.” And even though he has become posthumously successful his ultimate legacy is in creating something that has had an incredible human impact.
So, if you ever get the chance to see the show I would highly recommend it. I’d love to see it again. You can find out more about the current 20th anniversary UK tour here or the American tour here. There is also a film version, which includes most of the original Broadway cast (so you’re not going to cringe at the vocals.) You can also listen to the original Broadway sountrack or the film sountrack for free on Spotify. If you would like to find out more about Jonathan Larson and the story behind Rent I’d recommend watching the documentary No day but today: The story of Rent, which you can watch here. It’s a must for any musical theatre fans.
Have you ever seen the show? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments.