So I’ve been thinking about the first time I encountered RENT. It would have been midway through the year when the Tony Awards were screened on MNET – a ceremony the channel has now abandoned – on which the cast performed “Seasons of Love” and a truncated version of “La Vie Boheme”.
Now to contextualise my experience of seeing that performance on TV… I come from a not-so-little town where everything Conventional is celebrated. So being 18 years old and hearing a song that mentions “bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens, carcinogens, hallucinogens, men, Pee Wee Herman” and which celebrates “days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing” and “going against the grain” – well, it certainly sticks in your mind.
Buying cast recordings of musicals in my not-so-little hometown was also a something of a mission. Unless you were looking for The Sound of Music, Phantom of the Opera or one of the other great popular classics, it was rare to find what you were looking for. And this was way before I had access to the Internet or even knew that you could buy just about any CD you wanted from Amazon. So imagine the joy of finding the original cast recording of RENT in a small independent music store – I was ecstatic! And I rushed home to listen to a couple of hours of immensely engaging music.
So what did it mean to me? RENT told me that were was a world waiting outside of the place you grew up. A world where you had the choice to experience anything you were willing to take on. RENT made me realise that your friends can also be your family. And RENT told me that being yourself was all right. Not that any of this translated into an immediate change in my behaviour or lifestyle, but this story, to a young man, meant a chance to escape. And I do believe that if you want to experience something, if you want to achieve something, that you have to be able to visualise it first. So I guess this was the start of my visualisation.
Over the next few years, RENT would remain present in my life: I remember painting sets with the music blaring in the background, trying to figure out what it was that Maureen did during “Over the Moon” and watching friends perform extracts for various practical exams. Things would change when I graduated and moved away from home to study for an Honours degree in Drama; with my critical claws sharpened and a lot of conventional baggage discarded, the time came when I began to re-evaluate what I had once accepted without question….