When Becky Adams first heard the soundtrack of “Rent,” as a teenager, she knew it was a musical for a new generation and a new time.

She had been performing in musical theater since she was 4, so she was well-versed in the classic canon of Broadway musicals, from “Oklahoma” to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But “Rent” was a rock musical loosely based on the opera “La Boheme,” focusing on starving artist-type New Yorkers during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. It was just so different. Which is why it was so powerful to so many.

“It talked about things you didn’t talk about in musical theater, it really captured the imagination of the youth at the time,” said Adams, 42, of Carmel, near Bangor, who studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. “It really opened up what musical theater can be.”

Maine fans of “Rent” say the show resonates 25 years later because society is still dealing with many of the same issues, including a public health crisis. Photo by Amy Boyle

Mainers will get one last chance to pay “Rent” its due for breaking new ground in musical theater and inspiring a generation of performers and fans. The show is coming to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Oct. 28-29 as part of its 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour. The shows are being presented by Portland Ovations.

Part of the show’s power comes from its timeless portrayal of people turning to each other amid modern struggles, fans say. Twenty-five years after “Rent” opened, people today know what it’s like to struggle through a large-scale health crisis (the pandemic), LGBTQ community members still face hate and discrimination, and renting a decent apartment or house continues to be out of reach for many.

“This show is still really relevant, because not everybody today is living a happy, healthy life,” said Shelly Hooper, 50, of Westbrook, who first saw “Rent” about 20 years ago. “I’m super glad people are getting a chance to see it again.”

But “Rent” is not a downer, fans say. Some songs are vibrant, upbeat and inspiring.  In the show-stopping number “Seasons of Love,” the cast members sing about the “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in a year and about how you measure one year in one life and all that means. The overall takeaway for many audience members is that people can deal with tragedy and despair if they have friends.

“It’s really a story about people just trying to make it and persevering,” said Stewart Smith, 52, a photographer from Old Orchard Beach. “It’s saying life ain’t easy, but it is what you make of it.”

“Rent” opened in 1996 and within a few weeks was a national phenomenon, creating a level of excitement that was probably not seen on Broadway again until “Hamilton” some 20 years later. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and, during 12 years on Broadway, won four Tony Awards, including best musical. The original cast included several young performers who’d go on to be stars on Broadway, TV or film, including Idina Menzel (“Wicked” on Broadway and the “Frozen” films), Taye Diggs (the ABC drama “Private Practice”) and Jesse L. Martin (NBC’s “Law & Order.”)

Mainers will get a chance to see a touring production of “Rent” on Oct. 28-29 in Portland. Photo by Amy Boyle

The show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, was inspired by his own experiences and other sources, including the 1896 opera “La Boheme,” about the lives of poor young artists in Paris. Larson based “Rent” in New York’s East Village in 1989-90 and drew from his own time as a struggling composer and playwright. He also knew people living with AIDS.

Larson never saw the show’s incredible success. He died of an aneurysm on the day “Rent” was to begin preview performances in 1996. He was 35. Larson’s musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” – an autobiographical story about an aspiring New York composer – has been made into a film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and will be released in theaters and on Netflix in November. The movie was shot by Portland cinematographer Alice Brooks.

“Rent” has been relevant so long, some cast members of the current tour were not born when it first opened. Rayla Garske, 24, plays Joanne Jefferson, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who is in relationship with Maureen Johnson. Maureen is a performance artist and former girlfriend of another character, Mark Cohen, a struggling filmmaker who is the show’s narrator.

Maine fans of “Rent” say the show resonates 25 years later because society is still dealing with many of the same issues, including a public health crisis and the struggle to pay everyday bills. Photo by Amy Boyle

Garske said that in many theaters where the show has played so far, “Rent” has been the first event to be staged at those venues since the pandemic began. So audiences are not only celebrating the stories and songs of “Rent,” but also a return to seeing live theater together.

Plus, “Rent” is a show that is ultimately about people coming together, Garske said.

“You’ve got people of every type and color in the show, it’s very relatable,” said Garske, speaking from Boston, where the tour stopped in mid-October. “It’s so relatable to the times now.”

Michael Tobin, 58, first saw “Rent” on Broadway during its original run. He was one of the so-called “Rent-heads” who waited hours in line for a few $20 tickets made available on show day. As a longtime actor and theater director – he’s currently executive artistic director of Footlights Theatre in Falmouth – Tobin thinks “Rent” was to people in the ’90s what “Hair” was for people in the ’60s. It captured a time and place and spoke to a generation.

Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations, the arts presenter bringing “Rent” to Portland, thinks the show has held up because it rings true with people.

“When it came out, it had a grit to it, it didn’t feel sparkly and polished,” said Petrin. “It spoke to people because of its honesty.”

 

 

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