It will be 20 years this April since the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Rent, opened on Broadway. And an ocean away from its ten-year home at the Nederlander Theater, block-long lines still form outside the theater, rather the church, where the musical plays at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
Rentheads must live in Scotland.
For Scotland's 68th annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, the musical is presented by Uncompromising Artistry Productions, co-founded by Michael Quadrino. Quadrino, who is also playing aspiring documentarian Mark Cohen in the production, has been preparing the to bring the New York-centric musical to the festival since January, with director Nicola Murphy at the helm.
Written by Jonathan Larson, Rent tells the story of a group of struggling artists, many of whom are also living with HIV/AIDS in New York's Alphabet City. Larson, who died the morning of Rent's first Off-Broadway preview, drew upon his own life as well as the opera La Bohème for material. "It's a dream role, playing Roger Davis," Johnny Newcomb says with tears in his eyes. Roger is a rock musician living with HIV. Newcomb, who was a drummer before he began acting, said the musical introduced and drew him into the art form.
The musical is no stranger to touring. Rent has played theatres all over the world, including before at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Quadrino saw a production of it two years ago when he was performing in the festival.
Rent resonates outside of its New York setting, Quadrino says, "It's about New York, but it's about something bigger than that." But, he said this cast, all New York actors, is able to represent New York in an authentic way.
"You just know how it feels like to stand in the East Village on a night where you're kind of buzzed and a little bit lonely and stare up at the moon," Janet Krupin, who plays performance artist Maureen Johnson, says.
"Or have a crazy bag lady scream at you," Newcomb chimes in.
However, Krupin says she is enjoying playing the show away from New York, surrounded by artists from over 3,000 productions.
Despite the musical's following, Quadrino say, many patrons have never seen the show. The cast, alongside the festival's many other artists, hand out flyers often along Edinburgh's main drag known as the Royal Mile, or High Street. Krupin asks people, "Do you like Rent? Well, Rent likes you."
When Rent premiered, almost 20 years ago, being an artist meant living on the fringe, pun intended, Krupin says. Living a bohemian life in New York now is very different, but themes from Rent, such as fantasizing, at times, about leaving the city, for such creative meccas as Santa Fe, still hit home.
But this time, the company actually left, Quadrino laughs.
Rent original Broadway cast member, Anthony Rapp, who played Mark Cohen was a consultant on the production and sat in on call backs for casting. Another original cast member, Idina Menzel, Tony-nominated for playing Maureen, also advised Krupin before taking on the role.
Contextualizing parts of the musical for casts, Rapp reminds actors that these characters and their relationships are very complicated, especially as the plot, he says, can be economical with the facts, which are often thrown at the audience very sporadically and quickly. He recalls how Adam Pascal, who played Roger in the original cast, had to really think about why the character hasn't picked up his guitar in the six months since his girlfriend died. Over the years, Rapp has been on the other side of the production, watching from the audience many times, recently in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Seeing the show now, he says, he flashes back to performing with the original cast. "It feels so much like the original cast, that kind of energy, that kind of raw connection...I think about Jonathan. I think about when he died, about everything's that's happened. It's been almost 20 years."
Understanding that the musical is ultimately about community is essential, Rapp says. "You have to walk the walk," otherwise the cracks show.
And this cast does. They are not only living together while in Edinburgh, in what Quadrino describes as dorm-like accommodations, but also must strike the set after each performance. The cast carries set pieces out through the church lobby, weaving through a sold-out audience who have waited to congratulate them on their performances. Following this show, Krupin also took the costumes home to wash in the laundry.
"Everyone is here for the love," says Newcomb.
Other than the 1996 original cast, and some of the casts that Rent original director Michael Greif assembled over the years, Rapp says he thinks that this is the strongest overall cast.
Since then, many of the themes, such as what it means to live in Manhattan, have changed tremendously, Rapp says.
The musical and its title song revolve around not being able to pay Rent in an East Village loft. Now, "Artists have been squeezed out of Manhattan, especially struggling artists. There's no place for them," Rapp says.
Improving, Rapp says, is the prognosis, for many people who have HIV/AIDS. "But there still a question of access to the medications that are working for many people, if you are in the lower income bracket."
And with the news of celebrity athlete and reality star Bruce Jenner's public transition to Caitlyn Jenner, Rapp recalls the development of the character "Angel Dumott Schunard," a drag queen and street drummer, played in this production by Thomas Green.
"I never talked to Jonathan specifically about Angel's gender identity. It's never made explicit," Rapp says. But Larson was inspired by the 1990 documentary about New York drag queens, "Paris Is Burning," and friend, drag queen and performance artist, Justin Vivian Bond. But the musical never defines just where Angel fits in the transgender community.
The issues in Rent are as fresh as ever, Quadrino says. "If Rent was happening now, it would take place in Bushwick [a Brooklyn neighborhood]. It's still happening. It just moved."
Rent plays the Edinburgh Fringe Festival through Aug. 31. For more information on the production visit uaproductions.net.