Signature Theatre returns to live shows with ‘Rent,’ grappling with COVID as it did AIDS

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Rent' at Signature Theatre (Part 1)

Playwright Johnathan Larson once said that the opposite of war isn’t peace; it is creation.

That’s why Signature Theatre returns to live theater with the iconic rock musical “Rent.”

“It’s been a crazy year and a half,” Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner told WTOP. “It’s been an especially hard time for arts workers. Our entire livelihood is about people gathering. … I’m super proud of what Signature did in the last year and a half in terms of filmed productions … but I cannot wait to be back in a room with 300 people sharing stories.”

Finding joy in grief is the goal whether it’s the AIDS epidemic or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Signature has talked about doing ‘Rent’ many times over the years,” Gardiner said. “As the last year occurred and we experienced isolation and disconnection and loss in a completely different way, the story resonated. … There’s a lot of grief in ‘Rent’ [but] it affirms that being different is a blessing and fighting for change is a worthwhile pursuit.”

Set in America at the end of the millennium, the show follows bohemians in the East Village of New York City struggling with gentrification, love and loss amid the HIV crisis.

“It’s set in the Lower East Side in the ’90s during the height of the housing crisis as well as the AIDS epidemic,” Gardiner said. “It is based very loosely on ‘La Boheme,’ an opera set in Paris about a group of friends and their struggles. … Larson was attempting to write a ‘Hair’ for his generation that spoke to the issues that his generation was dealing with.”

Larson sadly didn’t live to see it, dying the night before the first Off-Broadway preview.

“He went home after giving notes the night before the big opening of his show and he unexpectedly passed away,” Gardiner said. “That evening the company came together and thought they would just sit behind music stands and sing the show he wrote. … They couldn’t contain themselves and about 15 minutes in they just started doing the staging.”

Gardiner says it was “the soundtrack of my middle school and high school years,” including “Seasons of Love,” “One Song Glory,” “I’ll Cover You,” “Out Tonight,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Take Me or Leave Me” and “What You Own,” which was performed at the 2021 Tonys.

“That is a very interesting song speaking to America at the end of the millennium, but you look at the lyrics and nothing has changed,” Gardiner said. “It’s a capitalistic pursuit that is very American that these two characters are speaking out against and ultimately decide to pursue their art, their humanity as opposed to getting dragged into the corporate world.”

Breathing life into these themes is a talented cast from D.C. and New York.

“Arianna Rosario, who was in ‘On Your Feet’ and the upcoming ‘West Side Story’ film is Mimi; Josh Dawson, who was in the original company of “Beautiful’ is Collins; David Marino, who was in the 20th anniversary tour returns to his role of Angel; and Vinny Kempski, Ines Nassara and Katie Murray have been on Signature stages many times.”

Historically speaking, the show changed LGBTQ rights, opening Off-Broadway in 1993, the same year that Hollywood made “Philadelphia.” This year marks the 25th anniversary of the show’s 1996 Broadway premiere, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

“It was transformative,” Gardiner said. “Larson was painting a portrait of artists, punks, transients and political activists who had formed this family — and central to that were characters that were LGBTQ. That was not something that was common on the Broadway stage or even in film in the ’90s. There was something taboo about many of those things.”

Today, Larson’s notes from the creation of “Rent” can be found in the Library of Congress.

“He has really specific descriptions of Mimi, Roger and Mark, their background and their history, then you get to Angel and Collins, the gay couple in the show, the queer couple in the show, and all it says is one line: ‘They meet and they fall in love,'” Gardiner said. “Their story is very pure, their love is very pure and is something to aim for.”

In the end, the show is life-affirming not just for humans, but for theater itself.

“There were moments in the past year and a half where I had the doomsday thought of ‘will theater survive?'” Gardiner said. “That’s what you’re thinking in the lowest moments of this pandemic, but of course it will. Art is the response to the violence in this world. Art is what makes us see our humanity. I love that: ‘the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.'”

Gardiner points to a quote from Larson that speaks to our present moment.

“‘In these dangerous times where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community rather than hide from the terrors of life,'” Gardiner said. “If that doesn’t speak to this moment, I don’t know what does.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Rent' at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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