Broadway hit ‘Rent’ still speaks to the misfit in us all


Long before people were lining up around the block in hopes of getting a ticket to “Hamilton,” a very different kind of show was praised for reinvigorating Broadway with its appeal to younger, more diverse audiences — Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.”

Austinites who have never seen the end-of-the-20th-century classic live on stage will soon have that opportunity when the show’s 20th anniversary national tour makes its way to Bass Concert Hall as part of the Broadway in Austin series Oct. 13-15.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” “Rent” tells the story of a group of 20-something New Yorkers living in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood while dealing with the hassles of adult responsibilities and the deadly specter of the then-rampant AIDS disease. The show was a massive critical and commercial success in its original run, winning multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize (issued posthumously to writer and composer Larson, who died the night before the show’s off-Broadway premiere), and it became one of the first Broadway shows to feature an affordable lottery system for sold-out performances.

With such a distinguished pedigree, you would think that Evan Ensign, the director of the show’s new national tour, might feel some pressure to live up to audience expectations. Ensign, though, is confident in the strength of the material. “I don’t feel that much pressure because I think the show stands up for itself,” he says.

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Ensign’s relationship with “Rent” goes back to the play’s original Broadway run, when he served as resident associate director, so his familiarity with the text gives him the freedom to make new choices while at the same time remaining true to Larson’s vision. This is especially true when it comes to the show’s casting.

This is the show’s second tour in as many years, and Ensign directed last year’s cast as well. Although eight of those company members have returned, the rest are new, altering the energy of the show. “It’s a great group, and if people saw it even last year the dynamics are a little bit different, and I always find that exciting,” Ensign says.

He notes, though, that this change in dynamics wasn’t done just to be different: “If somebody comes into the audition room with something interesting, we want to bring that out.”

Ensign doesn’t believe in change for change’s sake, especially with a text that, he feels, is still wholly relevant to today’s society. “I find aspects of the play that are about Facebook and Twitter, which didn’t even exist when Jonathan wrote the play,” he says. “There’s so much dysfunction in the play in terms of how people are communicating with each other and what they are honestly feeling. To me, that really does relate to this day and age where people feel that they can type anything on a phone, and it doesn’t matter if it’s hurtful or not, and they don’t feel responsible for it.”

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Inescapably, this also ties the play into contemporary political issues. According to Ensign, “Politically and socially, the world seems to be a bit of a mess these days. You hear people say, ‘Separate, don’t all get along, be with just your own group.’ And I just keep thinking, God, have we not progressed at all? And I do like that this play mixes everybody together and they can all get along. It doesn’t mean that people don’t fight and disagree, but they listen to each other.”

This, to Ensign, is what makes the show as timely as ever, in a world where he feels “we’re all becoming misfits.” Despite our differences, though, he asserts we all share crucial traits in common: “It’s one of the universal things — everybody’s trying to figure out how they fit into this universe we’re living in. And I think it’s harder to find a place now.”

Ensign, along with the cast and crew of “Rent,” hopes that the show’s message of acceptance, community and living in the moment will resonate with those audience members searching for the place where they belong, serving as a much-needed affirmation that, in the end, there is “no day but today.”



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