Photo courtesy of Sofia Suardi
It was clear from the first auditions that “Rent” was going to be a different type of show. Unlike previous musicals which featured race-based casting, “Rent” focuses on eight New Yorkers living in the midst of the late 1980s AIDS crisis. “It’s just a different show to produce,” said seniors Julia Ravenscroft and Gabriella Anifantis, who play Maureen and Mimi. The show was selected in part because it did not have any race-based roles, a step away from previous shows including “Hair” and “Legally Blonde,” which had drawn criticism to the theater department.
“Rent,” which opened on November 9, bills itself on its advertisement as a show about “falling in love, finding your voice, and living for today.” The play follows the relationship struggles among the lead characters as they navigate love and living paycheck to paycheck during an epidemic. The actors have been rehearsing since early September, putting in countless hours of work for the musical, which will be Wilson’s largest production of the year.
The production is director Karen Harris’ first at Wilson, and she seems to be taking it in stride. “The kids are very enthusiastic. [They] dived into learning about the story and ‘Rent’ – the time, setting, trials and tribulations of the characters,” Harris said.
Harris, who grew up in New York, saw the original play on Broadway. She thought the play was difficult to follow, as the timing of the play is unusual – the first act takes place in one day, while the second act spans the course of a year. Harris emphasizes the deep significance and meaning of the play–“For the school, [‘Rent’ is] everything this school is. Acceptance, diversity, pushing yourself and others to be the best you can be.” Harris noted that as a part of this effort, she focused on keeping the cast large with a full ensemble of 63 students, adding that the cast size means that some kids need more refined help.
The show is also unusual from a stagecraft perspective—the stripped down stage is meant to evoke the poor living conditions much of New York’s LGBT community lived in during the AIDS epidemic. “There’s no glitz and glamor. It’s super raw,” Production Designer and Technical Director Dan Iwaniec said. He added that the focus of “‘Rent’ itself is showing these people’s stories.”
Iwaniec, who himself is a member of the LGBT community, hopes that the play prompts conversation about the issues it addresses, namely LGBT discrimination, poverty, and homelessness. The theme of “the government, in this case, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, treating people like garbage” can also be applicable to many social issues today, Iwaniec said. Harris agrees, saying she hopes it will get people talking about diversity and unity, but adds that one show can’t make everyone happy. “It’s a show about everything we need to do as a society: accept each other for who we are.”
The cast emphasized the many lessons to be taken from the show, most of them from the characters living with AIDS who never know which day will be their last. “Don’t take small moments for granted,” Anifantis said.
This article was co-reported by Alex Holmes