‘RENT’ reflects past issues in present terms

UCO Musical Theater presents the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical RENT just months after its 25th year anniversary in March. The musical follows the lives of eight artists in New York City in the midst of the AIDS Epidemic. 

The production marks the first time the department has performed without masks, inside Mitchell Hall, in over a year.

D’Shaud Howard, who plays Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin, said he “couldn’t ask for a better show” to perform without masks.  

“I did three shows with masks, and honestly it’s just so hard to connect with people with masks,” Howard said. “Having no masks brings the audience closer to us, and there’s a better appreciation for the art that we do.”

RENT covers a year of friendship and loss between 1989 and 1990, but director Scott Guthrie says the “anxiety and paranoia” that came with an AIDS diagnosis at that time are the same fears people experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic now. 

“This is a very pandemic-adjacent piece of material,” Guthrie said. 

Although none of the students who performed witnessed the height of the AIDS epidemic, Guthrie says the relevancy of the show is not lost. 

“I had to remind them of the early days of the pandemic, when people like Tom Hanks were diagnosed with COVID-19, and people were paranoid that they were going to die. … It’s very similar to the AIDS epidemic,” Guthrie said. “They both tie into this idea of living for today. These themes are very much true today as they were then.”

Musical theater student Samuel Moran, agrees, and said this past year has been “incredibly isolating” due to the pandemic. 

“A lot of people in our industry have been without work, and without an outlet to explore,” Moran said. “In a lot of ways, HIV was considered ‘the plague’ back in the day, so that element of it really ties into the fear and uncertainty with COVID—and the future of our careers.”

The unique style and controversial themes made RENT the 1990s version of other musical phenomena like “Hair or Hamiliton,” director Scott Guthrie said. The sexually charged scenes and drug use might be surprising to some, but it isn’t there for shock value. If anything, the “controversial” material is merely a raw reflection of American society. 

“RENT is just so timeless. [Even though] I don’t think we struggle with the mortality [rate] of HIV/AIDS, we still struggle with a lot of social issues that carry over generations,” Moran said. “I think it still carries a lot of weight in our world today.” 

Moran plays Angel, a gender-fluid man who fearlessly battles AIDS through the first half of the show, but tragically dies in Act II. Angel’s character at the time was rare: a man embracing femininity and gender fluidity. 

“The role of Angel was so groundbreaking because at the time there had never been any kind of expression of gender queerness. Gender fluidity was never really talked about, or we didn’t have a lot of education about it, so at the time there wasn’t a way to say a person is non-binary,” Moran said. “It’s more so Angel is Angel. And sometimes he’s a ‘he,’ and sometimes she’s a ‘she.’” 

The seriousness of the production, student Jaylon Crump said, developed his skills and emotional awareness for future shows. Crump plays Tom Collins, who grapples with losing his partner, Angel, in Act II. While in the past he usually played comedic roles, Crump said the depth of his character in RENT allowed him to improve as an actor. 

“There are shows that you do that pay the bills, and there are shows that you do that maybe no one will come to—but it’s for you.  I feel like RENT is one of those shows that if there was no one in the audience I would still do it,” Crump said. “It reminds us why we’re artists, and why we choose to tell stories. It truly changed my life.” 

Guthrie said watching the students develop was one of the best products of RENT. 

“Besides being supremely talented, these students brought their hearts and their humanity [to the show],” Guthrie said. “They’re not just actors, they are citizens of the world, and the most fulfilling thing is to watch them grow in both of those areas.” 

The idea of “connection in an isolating age,” Guthrie said, makes RENT the perfect debut of the season. 

“RENT is one of those stories that needs to be told for ages and ages. It shows people to choose love over fear, and live life without regret no matter what condition or illness that you’re diagnosed with,” Crump said. 

The production of RENT continues in Mitchell Hall this week Thursday-Sunday. For more information visit https://www.uco.edu/cfad/academics/music/musical-theatre

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