Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director JR Rodriguez can rattle off on one hand the shows he believes changed the landscape of American musical theatre. Among his top five picks is TBT's next production, the award-winning Broadway favorite, "Rent."
"'Rent' made it popular for young people to go back to the theatre," said Rodriguez of the show's infectious music, twenty-something characters and gritty look at society. "It changed the demographics of people seeing shows."
The musical opened on Broadway in April 1996 and closed September 2008, making it the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history. Even more impactful is the fact the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly the night before "Rent" made its debut on Broadway and never got to see the hit it became. Posthumously, the show won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Tony Awards and several other major awards.
Among those appearing in Thunder Bay Theatre’s latest show, “Rent,” are from left, Tyler Davis, LeShawn Bell, Mackenzie Fountain, Kevin Ray Johnson, Nickie Hilton, Hannah Matzke, Derek Spack and Emily Szatkowski. The show opens Nov. 1.
Born partially out of Larson's own experiences as a struggling artist in New York City, "Rent" also was loosely written as a musical update of Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme," with the splendor of Puccini's world replaced with the coarseness and noise of modern New York. Rodriguez considers it a true New York City show, having been set there, written there, workshopped there and debuted there.
While waiting tables on weekends and composing and writing musicals on weekdays, Larson and his roommates lived in a rundown NYC apartment with no heat. He also dated a dancer for years who sometimes left him for other men and eventually left him for a woman. These experiences influenced the autobiographical aspects of "Rent," which concerns a group of bohemian artists, many of whom live with AIDS, struggle to maintain their friendships and their non-conformist ideals in New York's East Village.
In staging the production for Alpena audiences, Rodriguez said he chose to stay true to Larson's vision. As such, the show is not recommended for children under the age of 13, and while some high school acting students appear in the show, all do so with parental approval.
"It deals with society as we see it now," Rodriguez said. "What is so magnificent about 'Rent' is if you take your blinders off and just enjoy the story for what it is, you can't help but love it. It speaks to the human spirit. All of the characters have good and bad qualities."
Two professional actors new to the TBT stage, Tyler Davis and Kevin Ray Johnson, have joined the company in specialty roles for the three-week run of show. Other cast members are Derek Spack, Emily Szatkowski, Mackenzie Fountain, Nickie Hilton, Hannah Matzke, LeShawn Bell, Zach Clement, Randy Bouchard, Tracie Papin, Dylan Goike, Amy Truth, Caitlyn Borke, Yves Hayoz, Amanda Teehan, Mandee Henkle and Sandy Schmidt.
Rodriguez is pleased to have Greg Adamus serving as musical director.
"Greg has been great," Rodriguez said. "He does push these guys because the music is not easy."
The show's signature song is "Seasons of Love."
"Its words describe every minute in our lives for an entire year. It's an incredible song," he said. "There's not a bad song in the show."
For the set, Rodriguez again opted to stay as true to Larson's vision as possible.
According to the artistic director, 'Rent' was selected to be performed at TBT by local audiences who overwhelming voted to see it over the other offered selection, "Jekyl and Hyde."
"Jonathan Larson gave us a beautiful gift," Rodriguez said. "It's a story about young people, people in their 20s who are trying to make their way in a city that is not very forgiving to an artist."
"Rent" opens Nov. 1 and runs through Nov. 17, with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call the TBT box office at 354-2267.