If you happen to follow me on Instagram you are probably aware of the fact that I was just in Aruba. Doing RENT. With one of the most talented groups of people I’ve ever seen compiled in one place. I know that sounds made up - I myself am not entirely sure I didn’t imagine the whole thing. It has been a very long time since I was in a musical. As far as first shows back are concerned, this fell squarely in the “Beyond Wildest Dreams” camp. After all, I’ve spent my entire adult life in New York City having angst and making art. What better way to return to the stage than with the ultimate tribute to La Vie Boheme?
I stopped auditioning almost exactly ten years ago. I was able to carve a path for myself in music that felt more true than the one I was following in theater, but I’d be lying if I told you I’d never missed it. Jumping back in was more difficult than I thought it would be. You get used to doing things a certain way when you’re concentrating on your own project; I’m the person most responsible for the success or failure of my band. That’s not how theater works - there’s a reason acting classes make you do fucking trust falls. After a decade of trying to stand alone I had to be reminded that a great ensemble holds one another up. I was very lucky to be surrounded by people who loved the show and knew their shit.
I remember the first time I really listened to RENT - it was in a classmate’s car on the way to theater camp in the summer of 1999. It took me three years to actually hear the recording because at 14 I was an insufferable musical theater snob. The show had been around of course, in green rooms and cast parties and the back seats of coach buses en route to Minneapolis. I had never really paid it any mind, however, because EVERYONE ELSE LOVED IT SOOOOOO MUCH. I was very busy spinning Anyone Can Whistle on my Discman and had no interest in following the latest trends, thank you very much.
It was the song “Another Day” that won me over. I had a crush on the character of Roger (we all did, Adam Pascal amirite?), but I think on some level I also wanted to be him. Even before I started writing my own songs, I saw myself in a songwriter who “cannot hear.” In retrospect, my journey towards songwriting should have been clear from the fact that I rewrote the lyrics to Roger’s songs to better reflect my own life (yes I remember my versions, yes they are terrible, yes I am taking them to the grave).
The idea of wanting to create something that matters, to leave something real behind resonated with me long before I was old enough to really think about death. My grasp of my own mortality was limited to the idle thoughts of self-harm that just kind of hung around in the back of my head most days. I had the same issues with anxiety and depression then that I have now, but in the 90s there were less resources available for kids who were struggling (and boy did I ever hate guidance counselors. Chipper motherfuckers). Maureen and Mimi may have the fun belty numbers, but even as a teen I knew something about the ways that isolation can compound on itself. Roger’s fury at the show’s whole YOLO message made perfect sense to me. I was an angry kid, in my way. I think a lot of angry kids are just lonely.
I hadn’t thought about the show in a long time before I was cast, and it was surreal revisiting the music as an adult. The songs feel like high school, but the lyrics hit home in places where they never did before. ”Another Day” remains one of my favorite parts of the score, but now I hear Mimi’s pleas above Roger’s rage: “There’s only now, there’s only here. Give in to love or live in fear.” If you’ve read any of this blog thus far you know that my barely-managed anxiety disorder keeps me in a more or less constant state of vague terror. Here is the inside of my head in gif format:
HOW DID ALL THOSE CARS GET IN THERE?
I’ve realized in the last few months that love - putting the people and even the projects I care about ahead of the spiral - has the power to calm me down. It gets me out of my head and away from the panic. This is a very easy thing to write down, and an incredibly difficult thing to practice. The lesson Roger learns over the course of the show has been circling around me my whole life, and I’m only just beginning to hear it.
In my defense, it takes Roger the whole damn play to hear it. I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the way the show ends: while the heroine dies tragically in La Boheme, Jonathan Larson chose to give his Mimi (and the man who loves her) a miraculous second chance. Teenage Musical Theater Edgelord Hannah spent a good deal of time arguing that RENT would be better if Mimi stayed dead, but as an adult I can see why Larson stepped away from his source material in such a drastic way. The show spends two hours telling the audience to live each moment as our last, and to leave us with sorrow and regret would utterly negate that message. Instead, he gives us a glimpse at hope, however unlikely.
The female members of the cast end the show singing the words “I die without you” over and over again. Those words didn't really resonate with me until I stepped onstage to sing them for the last time. For some reason, out of nowhere, it occurred to me to dedicate each repetition to someone I loved. I sang to people I see every day, people who were far from me, people with whom I had lost contact all together. If you think I sang to you, you’re probably correct. I’m glad I only did it once, because it was hard to keep from crying once I’d started listing people in my mind. RENT celebrates the families we choose for ourselves, and performing the show has made me so grateful for the community I’ve found in New York. It makes me want to try harder. It makes me want to hold on to relationships I thought had died, to connect with new people, and be brave in the face of my own bullshit.
But most of all, it makes me want to fucking write. Jonathan Larson was a waiter in Manhattan who loved theater and music and his friends, and he made something beautiful in what he couldn’t have known were the last years of his life. He was 35 when he died - the same age I’ll turn next year. 35 years sound like an eternity to a high school sophomore, but thinking about his life and work as an adult have given me an overwhelming desire to DO THE THING RIGHT NOW. How could anyone hear his story, sing his words, and NOT write the song, make the movie, stage the protest, tell someone you love them, forgive? The tragedy - and the true legacy - of this show is the way its creator became a perfect embodiment of its message.
No other road, no other way. No day but today.