It changed musicals — and society — when it won the Pulitzer Prize and four Tonys in 1996, capturing souls “living in America at the end of the Millennium.”
This week only, the smash rock musical “RENT” returns to National Theatre, cycling back for a second time since its 20th anniversary tour began in 2016.
“We’re so lucky to continue to get to tell this story in 2019,” actress Kelsee Sweigard told WTOP. “The show is a celebration of life and individuality and acceptance. Within that, it is living and loving and accepting of the time that you are here and the time that you do have, because the fact of the matter is we don’t know how much time we have. That’s the great mystery of life. We don’t know how long we’re here [or] how long the people in our lives are going to be with us.”
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” (1896), the story follows a year in the life (or 525,600 minutes) of seven artists and lovers struggling to make rent in New York’s East Village amid the AIDS epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Mark narrates as an aspiring filmmaker whose ex-girlfriend Joanne left for a romance with performance artist Maureen. Roger is an HIV-positive musician afraid to fall for exotic dancer Mimi, while professor Tom and drag queen Angel love each other unconditionally as they live with AIDS. They’re all financially squeezed by realtor Benny, who plans to evict the residents, but allows them to squat in their apartment for free if they cancel a gentrification protest by Maureen.
“It’s basically their story of overcoming the many trials and tribulations they’re experiencing in life: love, loss, disease and gentrification,” Sweigard said. “At the core, it’s really a show about love and wanting to be accepted for exactly who you are. It was a very revolutionary piece when it debuted in New York in 1996 because it told different stories that hadn’t been told on a stage before.”
Sweigard plays Maureen, a role originated by Idina Menzel on Broadway.
“It’s such a dream come true to play this role,” Sweigard said. “When I discovered the show, I think I was 14 years old and I completely fell in love with it. I was so taken aback by Idina’s voice on the cast album. I just started looking up every piece of footage I could find from the movie and from bootlegs of the Broadway and off-Broadway show. So many iconic women have played this role and made it what it is today. … The role lives so differently on every person who plays her.”
Adding to the tragic allure, creator Jonathan Larson suddenly died the night before its off-Broadway premiere, causing the cast to openly weep in previews.
“On the day of the first preview, he tragically passed away from undiagnosed Marfan syndrome,” Sweigard said. “He was only 35 years old. It was completely tragic and it just makes the story so much deeper and more emotional than it already is. It has this historical weight that we try to honor each and every night.”
Larson’s legacy echoes with each song of his legendary songbook.
It starts with the defiant, hard-charging opening number “Rent.”
“I think of protest, I think of activism and I think of human rights and the fervor that makes us angry to charge through the rest of the show,” Sweigard said.
This is followed by the delicate and uplifting “Seasons of Love.”
“It’s a gift because the show is about to get a little difficult,” Sweigard said. “This is the big reminder about what the core of the show is really about.”
Next is the wistful acoustic solo, “One Song Glory.”
“That is legacy,” Sweigard said. “We all want to leave a mark behind of some kind. That one song, glory, if I can do one thing and leave it behind that I can be loved and be remembered by, then I will have done something worthwhile.”
This is followed by the flirtatious duet, “Light My Candle.”
“‘Light My Candle’ is so fun,” Sweigard said. “It’s so flirty, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek. It’s that boy meets girl moment and nerves and excitement. It’s so sweet.”
After that, strap in tightly for the rousing party anthem, “Out Tonight.”
“That is just like a firework,” Sweigard said. “That is just an explosion of excitement, fierceness and going for exactly what you want.”
Sweigard takes the stage next for the zany, “Over the Moon.”
“The hardest one to put into words is the one I do,” Sweigard said. “It’s protest, it’s standing up for what you believe in, it’s bravery, it’s confidence, it’s ballsy.”
The cast then combines to dance on tables for the celebratory, “La Vie Bohème.”
“‘La Vie Bohème’ is a celebration of life,” Sweigard said. “If war equals destruction, we have to counteract that by creating and building back up. It’s life.”
Who can forget the push-pull duet of, “Take Me or Leave Me?”
“It’s wanting to be loved and accepted for exactly who you age,” Sweigard said. “Let’s not fight, let’s not do this, this isn’t important, what’s important is that we love each other and we want to make this work. It’s a couple bickering like, ‘God, you drive me so crazy, but I love you so much. Why do you do this thing?’ Anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship can relate to that moment.”
There won’t be a dry eye in the house for the heartbreaking, “I’ll Cover You.”
“It’s a celebration of life and a message to a loved one,” Sweigard said. “It is everything that he just needs to say to his beloved.”
Finally, perhaps the biggest tear-jerker is, “Will I?”
“It’s so underrated,” Sweigard said. “It’s all of these questions, this cacophony of questions: Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake up tomorrow from this nightmare? It’s the fear of the unknown, it’s wanting to be supported and helped through the darkness in hopes that there is a lighter tomorrow.”
That lighter tomorrow came true, changing public perception on LGBT issues.
“It was so groundbreaking,” Sweigard said. “It really was the first of its kind in so many ways, from the music with the rock opera standpoint, but also with what it talked about. There were so many people who came to see the show who never felt they had a community or a safe space to talk about their issues, but here right in front of them was this big blockbuster commercial musical sitting on a Broadway stage, talking about these extremely taboo, unsafe topics.”
Not only was it controversial at the time, it still challenges audiences on the tour.
“We hear stories about boys kissing on stage [so] people walked out mid-scene,” Sweigard said. “Being on a national tour, we tour to some small places in the United States. … For smaller towns where there isn’t as big of a conversation about LGBT life … it still scares them. So while it’s amazing the progress we’ve made from 1996 until now, we still have a lot of work to do. So that’s one of the things that still makes the show so important. Jonathan was so prescient.”
Find more details on the National Theatre website. Hear our full chat below: