Broadway Across Canada: Rent’s relevance remains intact

The company in a scene from Rent — the 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle

Marlies Yearby remembers the musical Rent well. She should. She was the original choreographer for the groundbreaking musical and she was involved in the 20th anniversary tour that is coming to Ottawa on Oct. 22.

For Yearby, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Rent the musical works today because it has many themes that resonate through time.

There were issues of identity in 1993 when work on the project began. Those issues remained in 1996 when it opened off Broadway and they remain today, she says.

“Rent is relevant today because it really covers so many topics. Ina  general sense, it is really dealing with acceptance across the borders — all the borders, financial, cultural and gender,” she said.

“It’s saying it is important to love first. If you lead with love that will get us through. It  will help us build a society with understanding and a community with understanding.

“In today’s society right now we are dealing with question of all of those freedoms and every aspect of freedom whether cultural, gender — specifically women.”

Marlies Yearby. Photo: Lesley Ade

Yearby, who was nominated for a Tony Award and won a Drama League Award for her work on Rent, said, in an interview with ARTSFILE, that Rent does all this by telling the story of this community of people, most of whom are struggling artists, and what they are trying to do in their lives.

Rent, which opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, is loosely based on the famous Puccini opera La Boheme about young struggling artists living in a part of Paris in the 1840s.

Rent is set in the New York City neighbourhood of the East Village in the time of the AIDS crisis. 

It’s a place Yearby knows. In those days, she said, the East Village was “underdeveloped, torn-up, spicy and it had its own rhythm.” In the musical there is a place known as the Life  Café. It really existed, she said, on 10th Street and Avenue B. 

These days, the café is long gone. The flavour and the characters are gone too and the East Village has been taken over by condo developers. Today, she believes the Bronx is the closest to the East Village in the 1990s.

That’s another issue that Rent speaks to — insecure housing and affordability of accommodation remain very present today.

“We have definitely seen that in New York,” Yearby said.

Yearby was invited into the project when a woman named Linda Chapman reached out to her.

“She asked me to send in a tape of my work. At that time I was running the Movin’ Spirits Dance Theatre.”

She met with Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book and music and lyrics, and director Michael Greif.

“One of the things that Jonathan said was ‘I love how your dancers always remain human on stage’. I really connected to them as people’.

“He thought that was interesting. He wanted to know if I could bring authenticity to his characters so that they never became characterizations on stage. He wanted them to be human first.”

That was right in Yearby’s wheelhouse.

“I always like the idea of story telling that affects an audience and connects them to stage. I grew up around live music, jazz music in particular.” Her mother was a jazz singer.

“I listened to the music in parts I would hear that the instruments had a relationship with each other. I built those relationships on the stage in the same sort of way.”

Yearby is a believer that all aspects of a production must communicate with each other and the audience to advance the story. The lighting, for example, is not just pretty colours and a backdrop for the performers. It is telling you something.

“Rent is like that. It’s definitely an installation. It was different for musical theatre at the time. Jonathan really saw himself as bridging that world, bringing all these genres together.”

The music moves from rock to pop to R&B, she said. Rent produced some important songs in its initial run on Broadway such as the iconic Seasons of Love. The show brought contemporary music back to the Great White Way. Rent, at the time, was compared to Hair because of the music. It attracted a younger audience and spawned a legion of Rentheads who saw the show over and over again.

Sadly Jonathan Larson did not live to see any of Rent’s massive success. He died when an aortic aneurism burst in January 1996.

Yearby was involved in remounting Rent for this 20th anniversary tour. But when she joined there was one rule.

“I don’t like regurgitation. If I’m going to be there, I will honour the things that made Rent iconic the moves and things people expect to see. Angel has to jump on that table. Mimi will have to kick down those stairs and mount that bar.

“But I looked at who is in front of me and make decisions on how I approach the material. You end up adding a little something here and a little slice there.”

Of course, the idea of changing something like Rent is done carefully. But it is an organic process.

Even when the show made Broadway in the late ’90s, in the wake of Larson’s death, Yearby said, “I felt like I hadn’t finished at New York Theatre Workshop or on Broadway. In fact at the performance at the Lincoln Centre, I still felt that way.”

It took a year on Broadway for her to feel she was finally finished.

“After that it became fun. When I stepped back in I had fun. I was meeting new, enthusiastic young artists who had never seen Rent, other than in the movie.”

For a choreographer, the challenge of the touring production was presented by having different bodies portraying the characters.

“I can take and bring out the best in who is standing in front of me, by looking at who they are instead of imagining them as someone else.” There are iconic things that the choreography features. Angel has to jump on that table, she said. And Mimi will have to kick down those stairs and mount that bar, she said.

Aiyana Smash as Mimi in a scene from a performance during the 20th anniversary tour of Rent. Photo: Amy Boyle

Before the 20th anniversary revival Rent hadn’t been staged for some time.

“So people came in room having never seen it. What was beautiful was to watch them be affected by what was written and make these relationships. It feels fresh today because they were learning their parts, making choices and developing an approach” without an example in front of them.

Now the 20th anniversary tour has been going for about four years. “We’re almost ready for the 25th anniversary. That’s wild,” she said.

Broadway Across Canada presents Rent
Southam Hall
When: Oct. 22-27
Tickets and information on times:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.