If you were unlucky enough to see the tragically inept film adaptation of Rent last year, put it out of your mind immediately; Rent the theatrical experience is a whole other kettle of fish.

Legendary South African Producer Hazel Feldman is staging the highly acclaimed award-winning international musical in Johannesburg from July 17, and for a brief run in Cape Town in October.

Based loosely on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent is about the lives of a group of Bohemians living in New York City’s East Village over the course of a year as they struggle with relationships, drugs, loss, love, creativity, AIDS and paying their “rent”.

Rent will always be linked to the tragic – and perhaps now legendary – demise of its creator, Jonathan Larson, who composed the music and wrote the lyrics. The young Larson said that he aimed “to bring musical theatre to the MTV generation,” and he spent years trying to do just that; often working as a waiter to make ends meet while he reworked the show.

In 1996, after the musical’s final dress rehearsal in New York City, 35 year old Larson died suddenly from a heart condition in the early hours of the morning. Bizarrely, this happened almost exactly on the 100th anniversary of La Bohème. The first preview of the show was cancelled and the cast instead performed in his memory at his funeral. Larson never lived to see the huge phenomenon that Rent was to become.

The musical finally debuted on Broadway in April 1996 at the Nederlander Theatre. The reviews were remarkable: Rolling Stone said that Rent was, “Reinventing Broadway,” and described it as, “A raw and riveting milestone in musical theatre.” The New York Times called it an “Exhilarating landmark rock opera”, while The New York Post said that the show was, “Full of heart, passion and wit.”

Eleven years later, Rent is still playing at the Nederlander as the seventh-longest-running Broadway musical. International productions of Rent have been performed in Australia, China, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It opened in Portugal in October 2006 and this July sees its first performance in South Africa.

While some might be surprised to learn that Larson was apparently straight, Rent will be remembered as one of the first Broadway musicals to clearly feature gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender characters. It was also considered revolutionary for bringing controversial topics, such as AIDS, to a traditionally conservative medium, and is credited with increasing the popularity of musical theatre among a younger generation.

Rent makes it to South African theatres at a time in which AIDS and sexuality are at the forefront of change in our country…”

“Although written in the early 1990’s, Rent’s contemporary story line is relevant to today’s South African society.” says Hazel Feldman. “In fact, the story is timeless and very much resonates with youth around the world.”

Rent will be staged at the newly refurbished 550 seat Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein. Interestingly, the producers have commented that the area is re-inventing itself; it’s at a similar stage to what New York’s East Village was at 11 years ago.

Each of the international musicals (Fame, Chicago and We Will Rock You) produced locally by Hazel Feldman have featured an all-South African cast and Rent is no exception.

The show will continue the ‘Feldman philosophy’ of, “Combine the finest South African talent with the finest musicals in the world and you have an all-powerful combination on a par with or perhaps in some cases better than performances currently on London’s West End and Broadway.” Rent boasts a sensational cast featuring new and exciting young performers.

Duane Alexander plays the role of “Mark Cohen”, a struggling documentary filmmaker and best friend of “Roger Davis”, an HIV-positive musician who is recovering from heroin addiction played by Shaun V. Talia Kodesh is “Mimi Marquez”; a sexy HIV-positive stripper and dancer who is also a heroin junkie and Roger’s love interest.

Sivan Raphaely plays a spunky soul/rock singer “Maureen Johnson”, who is Mark’s ex-girlfriend and ex-girlfriend of “Joanne Jefferson”, a tough, headstrong Harvard-educated lawyer played by Ilse Klink. “Tom Collins”, the HIV-positive philosophy teacher, friend and former roommate of Roger, Mark, and Maureen is played by Aubrey Poo.

The ground-breaking role of “Angel Schunard”, an HIV-positive drag queen with a heart of gold, and Tom Collins’ love interest, is performed by Zane Gillion. The lead characters are rounded off by “Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III”, the landlord of Mark, Roger and Mimi’s apartment, played by Thokozani Nzima,

Other notables working on the production include acclaimed Musical Director Bryan Schimmel (he also plays the keyboard player and is accompanied by a five piece band), as well as Anton Luitingh who is resident director.

It’s taken just over a decade for Rent to make it to South African theatres; appropriately reaching us at a time in which AIDS and sexuality are at the forefront of change in our country. Now, finally, we’ll get the chance to see if it was worth the wait.

The Johannesburg run of Rent (starting July 17) is followed by a limited season in Cape Town, opening at the Artscape Theatre at the end of October 2007. Book at Computicket.

Roberto Igual

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