This is a repost of what I wrote earlier this year about the student production of Rent I saw at the International Thespian Festival. It was the fourth time I had seen the show. It was twelve years after the first time.
So I’m out here in Nebraska, right?
I’m teaching and dramaturging for the International Thespian Festival, which is basically a massive gathering of high school theater nerds (and of course, I say this with the utmost affection) for a week of workshops and plays and community. The whole experience is pretty amazing, with thousands of kids swarming the University of Nebraska campus, singing showtunes, and being, for once at least, completely in their dream element. There’s theater everywhere you go, and it’s wildly accepting and open and positive, and when you’re involved in high school theater, that’s exactly what you need (and rarely get in real life).
Every night during the week there is a different show on the mainstage of the campus; these shows are kind of the main event of the week, and are attended by hundreds of students and adults. Tonight’s show was performed by students from Mary D. Bradford High School from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Tonight’s show was Rent.
Let’s back up and talk about Rent itself for a second. The first time I saw Rent was back in 1996 in its original incarnation at New York Theatre Workshop as part of a school trip. We sat in the front row center. Idina Menzel flirted with me from the stage. Taye Diggs spit on me as he sang Seasons of Love. My jaw stayed pretty solidly on the floor throughout the night (although thankfully, it was closed as the spit was flying). I had never seen a show like this–young energy, music that seemed to follow more in the footsteps of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair then in the traditional show-tune stuff that rubbed me the wrong way. More importantly, I had never seen actors who so deeply cared about what they were performing, who were so ludicrously invested in the show and its message that the audience couldn’t help but be dragged right along with them into the story, into the world of the play. It’s impossible to explain to folks who didn’t see that production exactly what that production was, because I’m not sure there’s ever been anything quite like it, not with that moment and those circumstances. It was a true phenomenon, and to this day one of the most moving theatrical experiences I have ever had.
And then, tonight.
I don’t do reviews on this blog, and I’m certainly not going to review a high school production of anything, let alone of an edited (read: sanitized) version of a musical with, as they say, “mature themes” that are probably far and beyond what any high school student has a right to be able to play. But I will say this, and I’ll skip a space for emphasis:
God damn, that was amazing.
I’ve never been a party to giving a show a standing ovation in the middle of the performance. I was tonight. We talk about showstoppers. We overuse the term. Tonight, I saw a showstopper. An audience full of high school students were sobbing, audibly sobbing. Grown folks were sobbing, audibly sobbing. We’re talking a bravura performance here in the middle of the show, with an ensemble that virtually became a church choir, and a Joanne/Tom Collins combination that, that, that–I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. Beautiful, moving, powerful. Stunning really.
And that’s not the thing; here’s the thing. If you dive back a few posts (I’m to lazy to link for you), you’ll see my feelings about In The Heights and the way it activates audiences and celebrates community in that way that only theater can do. Rent does that naturally–that’s why it’s run this long, sold this many CDs. Now take what Rent does naturally, and multiply that by hundreds of high school students who have been listening to the CD their entire theatrical life, who have memorized every line without ever having seen the show in person. Multiply that by this atmosphere, this glorious week-long oasis where the theater geeks are the rock stars, are the centers of our own little isolated universe, where we all sing along to Rent and aren’t ashamed, don’t consign it to the guilty pleasure column but embrace it, embrace it as a sign of our communal values and beliefs, cling to it as a validation of our deep need for community and union and acceptance and yes, love, unconditional love, the kind of love, as they say, “that Angel had.”
Go ahead. Multiply it by those things.
If you can’t work out the equation, here’s what you get:
When Maureen tells the audience to “moo with me,” everyone–everyone–in the auditorium starts to moo, and moo loudly, and moo the way the character actually wants them to moo: deeply, from the heart. These kids are mooing as a sign of resistance, as a sign of rebellion and transgression, and yes it’s sanitized, and yes it’s censored and controlled, but you know what? These kids would have mooed for ten minutes straight if the cast had let them, because right there, in that moment–and this sounds stupid and overdramatic, but I’m a dramatist, so whatever–right there in that moment, a generation of theater kids belonged. And belonged together. And I went all kinds of emo.
And for me, the thing is this (I know I said I already discussed the thing, but here’s the thing behind the thing, which is a Guernica reference for those of you who know that play): I didn’t think Rent was going to hold up all that well. I thought it was dated. I let the awful movie and the last 30 minutes of the show itself (which I think is pretty uninspiring and unfinished, quite frankly) blind me to the fact (and I think it is a fact, not an opinion) that the first 3/4 of that show is pretty effing remarkable, and unique, and groundbreaking just like all the press and hype had claimed it to be. It’s a powerful show, period, not just for those of us who saw it in the shadow of Jonathan Larson’s untimely passing.
And these kids–these kids got it. Twelve years later.
Now look. It’s not a perfect show to begin with (like I said, the last 1/4 really falls apart, I think, and there are some problematic story points throughout), and the censored-down high school version raises a whole bunch of other questions and issues, particularly in the realms of gender and sexual politics. But tonight–tonight I saw something that I really liked: a theater world that’s evolving, becoming contemporary, becoming relevant to young people while maintaining some kind of socially relevant edge. And I realized that In The Heights and Passing Strange and the like are keeping this alive and taking it new directions, and I remembered that the only person out of his seats to give the Rent performance at the Tonys its due and well-deserved standing O was Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Because he got it.
Like these kids get it now.