By Jaehun Lee
Two years ago, RENT was set to become South Stage’s winter musical, until it got canceled and replaced by The Rocky Horror Show. While Rocky Horror was a huge success, the cancellation of RENT led to many students to hope that South Stage would one day be able to secure the rights to perform it.
“I was heartbroken,” senior Deana Korsunsky recalled. “I love [RENT] and was looking forward to a show that would shake people up and start conversations about sensitive and ‘taboo’ topics.”
Two years later, their wishes have been answered, as RENT will open on Thursday, March 16.
RENT, loosely based on the late 19th century opera La Bohème, follows a community of people living a Bohemian lifestyle (“an unconventional lifestyle with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, literary or spiritual pursuits”) in Alphabet City, Manhattan, struggling against various problems, including poverty and the AIDS epidemic.
The musical follows a group of friends including Mark (played by senior Aaron Foster), Roger (senior Ethan Koss-Smith), Mimi (senior Naomi Honig, understudied by junior Juliet Cable), Maureen (junior Windley Knowlton), Collins (junior Elijah Lawrence), Angel (senior Noah Weisskopf), Benny (sophomore Bobby Lovett), and Joanne (senior Abby Lass).
“The show is extremely heavy in the sense that AIDS and HIV are very prevalent,” junior Windley Knowlton explained. “During the first rehearsal, we split into two pretty even groups of ‘HIV+’ and ‘HIV-’.”
In order to do the HIV/AIDS dimension of the show justice, director Becky Price put in extra work so the cast would go beyond the script and truly understand the emotion behind the writing.
“At the beginning of the process, Ms. Price had us do lots of work and learning about the original RENT writers/cast and AIDS in general,” Knowlton said.
Freshman Ethan Kopf agreed, adding that he “loved hearing the guest speaker that Ms. Price brought in to teach us about the history of HIV/AIDS.”
“Ms. Price has been awesome throughout the whole process,” Kopf added. “She’s been able to answer all of our questions and she is very supportive of discussing the show. She listens to our ideas and helps us connect with the show through character work and other discussions.”
Assistant Stage Manager Celia Snyder agreed, adding that she is grateful that Ms. Price is willing to put in so much effort directing RENT, even after a long day of work.
“She pushes herself to her limits over and over again to be at the best top of her game even, when she is coming to direct after having a full day of work,” Snyder said. “She really understands the process, as well as directing and making compromises and for that I thank her.”
RENT may be a demanding musical to rehearse and get stage-ready, but Knowlton found rehearsals to be incredibly fulfilling.
“The most fulfilling, full-cast bonding moment is when we nail a piece and have so much fun with it,” Knowlton explained. “Whenever we run ‘La Vie Boheme’, we all just have such a good time, and each time we do it I dance with someone new and we all just feel so good all together. It’s really cool to create something so fun in a big group.”
Kopf agreed, saying that the RENT’s heavy topic also helped in making a cohesive cast.
“When a group of kids who don’t all know each other spend hours together at rehearsal learning the same music and dance and blocking, especially for a show as heavy as RENT, we all end up a little closer to each other than we were before,” Kopf said. “I personally have made lots of friends during this show with kids from each grade and even though it is a big cast, I feel like I really know everyone.”
One moment that particularly resonated with both Knowlton and Kopf was the funeral scene, the emotional climax of the production.
“I think most of the cast would agree with me when I say that one of the most moving scenes we have worked is the funeral scene,” Knowlton said. “Even though we were in our street clothes and there was nothing glamorous or show-like about the situation, everyone in the cast connected so deeply over a truly massive wave of emotion. It was pretty crazy– we finished the song at like 15 people we crying. That was amazing.”
Because RENT is such a complex show, there are many themes such as love, inequality, and owning your insecurities, that the audience can latch onto. Knowlton believes that while RENT takes place in the late 80s, its themes remain pertinent today.
“I think the themes of RENT are not only important to the modern world, but also to our development as high schoolers,” she explained. “It’s an edgy show, which I love because it allows us to express ourselves in new ways in a safe space. On the other hand, the inequality of society and the disrespect our community (Alphabet City) receives is constantly touched on throughout the show, which I think really connects to today. There is a lot of homosexuality in this show! At this point at NSHS, we are celebrating it and rejoicing, but also recognizing the pain of previous experiences and times, especially with the AIDS epidemic.”
Knowlton hopes the audience will come in with an open mind, especially her classmates, who may not be used to seeing the Windley Knowlton they see onstage. In addition, she hopes they’re ready for a high energy performance.
“One of the coolest things about shows is seeing your friends be the same person on the outside but a completely different person on the inside,” she said. “So if you only know my face as that girl who sits quietly in math class and speaks up maybe once a month, it’ll be pretty crazy and fun to see me in this show. Also, audience members should look forward to a super high energy performance, some audience participation in the form of mooing, a range of beautiful emotions, lots of straight, gay, and anything else stuff, and some fun outfits.”
Stage Manager Max Goldberg agrees, adding that beyond the great music, we should take the musical’s message to heart.
“I hope that every person who comes to see the show not only enjoys all the great music and everyone’s hard work but also leaves inspired by these characters who live with AIDS and in poverty and have to fight through each day like a battle,” Goldberg said. “I also hope that it expands awareness locally for those issues and more represented in the show that we as Newton residents don’t normally get to look at closely.”
Although the show itself is sold out, anyone can come to Wednesday’s open dress rehearsal to see RENT. In order to get on a waitlist, you can come to the auditorium at 6:45 every night of the show and speak to the ushers.