The Company of the Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour. Photo by Amy Boyle

I don’t talk about it much in this space, so permit me to shout it from the rooftops: I LOVE MUSICALS!

I’m shouting it especially loud because Portland Ovations is presenting a national touring, 25th anniversary Broadway production of “Rent” at Merrill Auditorium on Oct. 28 and 29. I’ve been obsessed with the show since seeing it in Boston in the late ’90s, and many of the songs from it are relevant today.

My love for musicals began when I was 12 or so years old, and my parents dragged me to a high school production of “Guys and Dolls.” When I was in high school, they took me to see “Evita” in Boston. Epic beyond words. Then, over the course of a few years, I saw “Into the Woods,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Sweet Charity” and “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. Years later, when my sister was living in New York City, we visited for Thanksgiving and saw “Annie Get Your Gun,” starring Bernadette Peters. Wow!

But what really spun my spurs, what really knocked my socks off, was seeing “Rent” circa 1998. I had won tickets in a bar by answering a trivia question about it. My friend Nina and I went. Our seats were kind of lousy, but the show was anything but. Seeing it was a full spectrum emotional experience. Side note, I’ll never not be sad that Jonathan Larson, who wrote “Rent,” died of aortic dissection before the show opened on Broadway. He was only 35. But what a legacy he left behind.

When I got wind that “Rent” was going to be at Merrill, I starting thinking about how the songs translate to 2021. I busted out my double CD of the soundtrack with liner notes that contain the entire script and lyrics. Upon pressing play, I was instantly reminded of why I love this show, as the beloved characters were introduced, beginning with the filmmaker Mark Cohen, played by Anthony Rapp.

“December 24th, 9 p.m. eastern standard time, from here on out I shoot without a script,” sings Mark, who is soon joined by his roommate, Roger Davis, played by Adam Pascal, who just spent six months in rehab for drug addiction. Twenty-five years later, opioid addiction continues to wreak havoc here in Maine.

They are squatting in a loft in a building owned by their former roommate and former friend Benny, played by Taye Diggs, who is suddenly demanding they pay rent. Then there’s Tom Collins, played by the silky-voiced Jesse L. Martin, one of the stars of “Law & Order” for 11 years. Upstairs neighbor and another star of the show is Mimi Marquez, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega. “Rent” is set in New York City around 1990, and here in 2021 Portland, the issue of what it costs to rent housing is a hot-button topic.

We learn that Roger lost his girlfriend, April, to suicide and that she left behind a note saying that they both are HIV positive. Today, advances in the treatment for HIV and AIDS mean that those infected with it can often lead long and healthy lives. It was scarier during the time of “Rent,” and Roger’s bitterness and fear runs deep. Salvation comes in the form of Angel Schunard, who is also living with HIV but whose spirit will never be squelched even at the darkest moments.

Two of my favorite songs from the show are “Life Support” and “Will I,” which take place during a meeting for a support group for those living with HIV and/or AIDS. “Life Support” contains the famous lines “No other road, no other way, no day but today.” In “Will I,” which has been ripping my heart out since I first heard it that night in Boston, characters ask: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”

The song doesn’t end on a happy note because it shouldn’t. HIV took entirely too many lives. If only more had been done in the early days to educate people about it and properly fund research. If only there hadn’t been so much ignorance. It’s no wonder it reminds me of COVID-19. Believe me when I tell you, I shed tears at my desk thinking about all of this as I’m writing.

But “Rent” makes me way more happy than sad. Case in point, “Tango: Maureen,” sung by Mark and Joanne. Joanne is the new girlfriend of Mark’s ex, Maureen. Mark is offering tech support to Joanne for a performance Maureen is putting on later that night, and while dancing the tango, the pair bond over their frustration and also love for Maureen. “And you toss and you turn/’Cause her cold eyes can burn/Yet you yearn and you churn and rebound.”

Speaking of Maureen, she’s another shining star of “Rent.” To protest rising rents and homelessness in Manhattan, she puts on a one-woman show in a vacant lot. “Over the Moon” is a wild, spoken-word and sung performance piece. Maureen rants about “Cyberland,” which speaks to the early days of the internet and the perils of virtual reality. Lines like “They’ve closed everything real down, like barns and troughs and performance spaces/And replaced it all with lies and rules and virtual life” sound a lot like life during the shutdown.

One of the songs at the heart of “Rent” is “Seasons Of Love,” which opens with the line “525,600 minutes, 525,600 moments so deep/525,600 minutes/How do you measure a year?” The cast suggests that a better way to measure is not in minutes but in cups of coffee, sunsets, laughter and, most of all, love. The show in fact spans a year, and throughout that year, we celebrate, mourn, laugh and grow along with the characters. It’s all about opening your heart, even when you think you can’t. It’s about leaning on your friends. And, “Rent” is about standing in your power, your emotions, your hopes and your authenticity.

It’s a glorious way to spend a few hours, and as this is billed as the farewell tour, it could be your last chance, though with themes this timeless, we’re pretty sure it will be revived – and still relevant 25 years from now.

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