Two decades ago, on Jan. 26, 1996, Jonathan Larson’s critically acclaimed musical, “Rent,” made its Broadway debut. The show earned four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, and it ran for 12 years on Broadway. In 2005, it was made into a feature film.
Larson never lived to see his musical explode into fame. He died unexpectedly the morning of its first preview show. But for “Rent” super fans like Lansing native Kelly Stuible- Clark, Larson’s legacy lives on through the groundbreaking musical.
“I saw it on Broadway twice, and I saw the national tour twice,” Stuible-Clark said, “We call ourselves ‘Rentheads,’ people who know every line and just live and breathe it. That was me in high school and college.”
Stuible-Clark directs Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “Rent,” which opens Thursday. She suggested the show because of the anniversary, as well as the chance to explore LGBTQ issues.
“I like to do shows that have a social aspect, that talk about social issues,” she said.
The storyline of “Rent” focuses on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. during the 1980s and ‘90s, as well as the stigma surrounding the LGBTQ community. For Stuible-Clark, the musical was a window into a community that was often misrepresented, caricatured or even demonized by mainstream media.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t know very many gay people. I remember listening to ‘Rent’ and being like, ‘Oh, ok. So this isn’t a big deal,’” she said. “I really like the idea of looking at where the state of HIV and AIDS is and the difference in interaction between gay people then and now.”
Riverwalk Theatre brought in consultants to help the cast understand the effects of HIV/AIDS. City Pulse reporter Todd Heywood, a local activist for HIV/AIDS-infected individuals, and Peter Gulick, a local doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, were brought in to speak to the actors. The cast was able to ask about medical terminology used in the play and the types of treatment used in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the disease was a virtual death sentence.
The community’s response to this production, Stuible-Clark said, is proof of the musical’s enduring relevance.
“We had over 75 people audition,” she said. “We had a lot of talented people show up. We were hoping to cast 16, and we ended up putting 19 in.”
Stuible-Clark expects the large cast and the popularity of the show will pull in a lot of first-time local theater-goers.
“It was nice to bring in new faces and new cultures and new experiences into the theatre,” she said. “I hope that this will bring in their friends and family, so we can mix it up a little bit here and diversify Riverwalk’s base.”
7 p.m. Thursday, June 2; 8 p.m. Friday, June 3 and Saturday, June 4; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5; 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9; 8 p.m. Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 12 $22/$20 students, seniors and military Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing.
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com