Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. Before Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996, few among us could have immediately and confidently stated how many minutes comprised a year.
But once Rent and the beloved and haunting song “Season of Love” began hitting stages beyond Broadway two decades ago, even casual fans of the musical had that piece of trivia securely in their pocket.
Rent was a lightning bolt from its inception: A story which doesn’t promise a happy ending for everyone. A glimpse of a frightening reality that isn’t fixed in three hours and a couple dozen production numbers. A vision so stark and powerful that love is never as easy as boy meets girl.
In some ways Rent was the anti-musical, providing a bold look at our times as they were in the 1990s rather than a pleasant escape. It was a story whose time had come and has lasted throughout changes in our culture and the way we view the world and our place in it.
One of the most welcome aspects of Rent’s popularity has been the diversity of its cast, the opportunity for actors of color and varied cultures to be part of a narrative which is inclusive by design.
One of the actors who will visit the Honeywell Center as part of the touring show’s 20th anniversary celebration is Lencia Kebede who plays Joanne Jefferson, a character who comes from some privilege and whose Ivy League education provides her some advantages.
But the fact that she is a lesbian and that she uses her education to help the public allows her to connect with those who come from less. Kebede herself comes from a culturally rich background, one that ultimately led to her choice of profession.
“I come from a big, beautiful Ethiopian family, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles,” she said. “Since graduating from Occidental College in L.A., I’ve been a full-time performer, working both regionally and internationally in musical theater as well as working as a recording artist, singing background for artists including Beyoncé and Billy Porter.
“I connect very deeply with Joanne because of her analytical nature. In college, I studied Diplomacy and World Affairs and worked in the legal and political field extensively, so I have firsthand experience of the pressures of Joanne’s career path as well as how those pressures shape her as a person.”
The powerful topics tackled in Rent can seem exhausting, a far cry from a show about more generic fare than many of the classic musicals of old. Kebede says she accepts that aspect of Rent and accommodates the intensity of the material.
“Because this show covers very heavy and emotional topics, my approach is to try not to expect the same type of emotionality from myself every show. Instead, I allow how I, as Lencia, am feeling each day to drive how Joanne is feeling. It allows me to build a more dynamic character in Joanne who feels differently everyday like a regular person.
“The core essence of Joanne never changes, however how she reacts in certain scenes can vary slightly based on the day, keeping my experience telling this story fresh and nuanced.”
While many musicals stick to more timeless material, Rent is special because it has bucked that trend entirely. The show captures a particular time in New York City when the AIDS crisis was hitting many very close to home.
Although AIDS has certainly not been eradicated, public perception is that the battle is mostly won, since many have found treatments which have extended their life expectancy. High profile AIDS patients like Magic Johnson add to the sense that the crisis is over. Despite that and in the face of other cultural challenges which have stolen the headlines, Rent continues to provide a powerful message and to win fans of new generations.
“This show has a lasting impact because it portrays real people, with real relationships and real life issues allowing audience members to recognize themselves in the narrative,” Kebede said. “That’s probably my favorite part of the writing of this show—the principle group of characters covers a wide variety of individuals and personality types creating an eclectic group of friends that is so realistic that people see themselves as a part of it.”
In the end that is why Rent still draws devoted audiences more than 20 years after its Broadway debut. While the specific details and storylines may reflect a time in our collective history, the overriding themes are as universal as any beloved musical.
“Regardless of the time period the show takes place in, the topics are forever timeless and relevant,” Kebede said. “Rent explores love, loss, disease, personal growth, community, and acceptance, all very prevalent in our everyday lives. Additionally, people love the music in our show—as do I—and sometimes I can literally see how those melodies touch the hearts of audience members when I’m on stage. It’s a beautiful sight.”
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