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With Rent comes responsibility

The challenges and importance of “getting it right” on stage

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Directing a play is a lot of work. It requires patience, an attention to detail, and a collaborative spirit. And, of course, the bigger the play, the more you need of all those things.

So, when you’re putting together Rent — a massive musical with an ensemble cast of 17, a small orchestra, choreography and music that never really stops, and a host of other issues —it requires the sort of logistical coordination usually associated with major public works projects.

Because after all, Rent isn’t your typical musical — and that’s even before we get into the play’s particular pedigree. “No, Rent is not your average musical,” says Gary Lanier, the choreographer for the Fort Wayne Civic’s production of Rent, opening February 26. “Most musicals are scene, scene, scene, song. Rent is about 90% song. It’s closer to an opera.”

“Anything that’s even dialogue in this play is musically driven,” he adds. “I don’t think there’s a time in the show when the orchestra is not playing.”

And there’s also never a time in the show when the actors aren’t… well, not dancing exactly, but just as most of the dialogue is sung, most of the movement on stage has to be done on cue and in time with the music. “You’ve got to do your job as an actor in a certain amount of time and make it seem like it’s natural,” says Renae Butler, the show’s director. “You have to have this really explosive response to something, but you’ve got about eight bars of music to get through, and you’ve still got to make that seem organic.”

Then there are issues like… lighting, just as an example. James Velez, Rent’s stage director, says that Rent has something like 700 light cues; to put it in perspective, Velez “called” lights for another production recently that had 150 cues. “There are two types of lights for a production,” Velez tells me. “There are the standard lights that will not move, and then there’s intelligent lighting that can move and rotate. Rent has both, with an operator for each board.”

“For a stage manager, I’m a kid in a candy store,” he continues. “I can’t wait for them to hand me a cue. 700 light cues could be daunting, but I’d rather be busy for 2 + hours.”

Then there’s the orchestra… the ensemble… the costume changes… the sets…

And to top it all off, the actors and actresses on stage have to… well, act. “Rent puts a lot of focus on the acting; it’s not just signing and dancing,” says Brendan Kelly, who plays Roger, an aspiring musician. “Renae’s a big part of that. She gives you a picture of what she wants, but she’s an actor’s director. She lets you find your own way.”

Butler appreciates the compliment, but as the director, she says she doesn’t get the chance to spend as much time with the actors as she’d like. “If I was doing The Glass Menagerie right now, I would have had four really good weeks under my belt coaching the actors and working on the scenes and doing all the acting things I like to do. But when you’re doing a musical, you’ve got two weeks of music, you’ve got a week of dance, so I don’t even feel I get my hands on the actors until three and a half weeks in.”

“That’s the challenge,” she continues. “You almost feel like a stranger to them. The cast has already gelled as a group and you’re kind of sitting on the outside. Then I get to step in for two-and-a-half weeks and then, as the cast continues to gel, the interesting to me is that they get tighter and tighter and I get farther and farther away.”

One word that pops up consistently during my talk with members of the cast and crew of Rent is “responsibility,” and it’s applicable on several different levels. For one, Rent is probably the most successful original musical in the past few decades; its legions of fans are known as “Rent-heads,” intimately familiar with every nuance of the play. So, though Butler says she’s not interested in delivering an exact replica of someone else’s production, there’s a generation out there that know the songs and have high expectations — you always want the hard cores on your side.

But if Rent is one of the most successful, it’s also one of the most controversial. The play’s writer and composer Jonathan Larson — who died just before the play’s debut in 1996 (he was awarded a Pulitzer posthumously) — set Rent in the hardscrabble New York artistic world of the late 80s/early 90s, and doesn’t shy away from many of the issues of the time. Homophobia, racism, and in particular the specter of AIDS are all dealt with in Rent, and well over a decade after the play’s debut, the issues are still relevant. Butler and the rest of the cast and crew of Rent think it would be dishonest to play down those aspects of the story, or treat it as a sort of period piece.

“There are certain things about the play… there’s a certain word that flies quite often, for example,” says Gary Lanier. “But you’d be doing a dis-service to the show if you took some of those things out.”

Lanier and Brendan Kelly are no strangers to controversy — they worked on IPFW’s production of Corpus Christi in 2001. “I feel this show involves some of the same issues, so I’ll be really curious to see how people respond,” Kelly says. “The way Renae directs pushes all the issues to the front, and the music becomes a complement to that.”

And while things may have changed since Rent’s debut, they haven’t changed all that much. “Being HIV positive isn't automatically a death sentence anymore,” Butler says. “What hasn't changed much is the intolerance for differences. Rent contains several love stories - homosexual and heterosexual. These depictions of love are unlike what we see on television and in other mainstream presentations. They are also tender, loving and true. Being able to bring these characters to life is a great responsibility and humbling opportunity.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Rent
For mature audiences (frequent strong adult language; deals frankly with topics of sexuality)

Saturday, February 26 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, February 27 at 2:00 PM

Friday, March 4 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, March 5 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, March 6 at 2:00 PM

Friday, March 11 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, March 12 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, March 13 at 2:00 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $24/adults; $16/age 23 and under; $20/Sunday Senior Matinee
Box Office: 424-5220

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.