by: Laura Stauffer | November 15, 2016
I first saw RENT in Boston when I was 15. Our high school theater director arranged for our drama club to go see the groundbreaking musical (in retrospect I have to give her a nod for not being afraid of the tough and controversial subject matter). I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we were about to see.
Now, my parents were theater buffs. I had seen performances on Broadway, had grown up on a steady diet of Maine State Music Theater, Ogunquit Playhouse, and the Portland Players. But this wasn’t just the profundity of live performance.
THIS was different.
THIS resonated in a way musical theater had never resonated before.
THIS was a language and a story and a cast that conveyed experiences that may have been unfamiliar but that tapped into emotions and hopes that underlined our shared humanity and expanded our empathy.
RENT in Portland, Maine: New Tour. Same Emotion.
20 years later, I sat in Merrill Auditorium as the opening number of RENT in Portland, Maine overtook the stage.
When rocking melody entwined with the angry and righteous lyrics, when actors overwhelmed the bohemian sets in intricate staging, I was that 15-year-old girl again, blown away and forever changed by what I was experiencing.
While those visceral memories were sparked, it was also reassuring to note the ways in which my 2016 experience of watching RENT in Portland, Maine differed from my 1996 one.
Same Show, Different World.
In 1996, to see LGBTQ characters (let alone relationships) proudly front and center of the stage was still new. Keep in mind that the now beloved Ellen DeGeneres was at least six months away from officially coming out—a move that initially received backlash, protest, and name-calling (“Ellen DeGenerate” anyone?). In 2016, it feels “everyday” enough to seem almost banal (thankfully).
In 1996, the specter of HIV/AIDS loomed large enough as an inevitable death sentence that the idea that someone would slit their wrists upon a diagnosis seemed entirely plausible. In 2016, for many it has become a chronic, yet manageable condition.
While we still have a long way to go, it was heartening to be reminded of the progress that’s been made. Alas, the issues of opioid addiction and gentrification remain painfully immediate…
The change in what I reacted to emotionally was also palpable. As a starry-eyed (and hormonal) teenager, it was the central relationship of Roger and Mimi that was most compelling. Their passion, their tempestuousness and the songs derived from it (“Light My Candle”, “Take Me Out”, “Without You”, and “Your Eyes”) were what consumed me and my CD player in the months afterwards.
But during the performance of RENT in Portland Maine, it was Angel and Collins that had me riveted—their pure and instant connection, born of unconditional nurturing and support through tough times, was what gave me “relationship goals” (is that what the kids are calling it these days?).
My tears fell not during Roger’s heartbreak at Mimi’s impending doom, but at Collins’ stirring and soulful promise to the dearly departed Angel that “I’ll Cover You.” If I could follow this tour for the next 9–10 months just to hear that song bring the house down over and over again, I would.
Ultimately, it is the anthem for art, creation, beauty, protest, inclusivity, openness, unconventionality – “to being an us for once, instead of a them” – that both 15-year-old me and the 35-year-old me will always agree on.
I hope you will join us in raising a glass today (and always) to “La Vie Boheme.”
Laura Stauffer is the Programming & Grants Manager at Portland Ovations.
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