The musical "Rent," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996, paints a picture of a world that's gone. Based on the Puccini opera "La Boheme," the rock opera follows the lives of seven friends struggling with love, drugs and AIDS. It's set in New York's East Village in the 1980s.
“The New York City depicted in ‘Rent’ and that whole East Village lifestyle has really changed,” said Stephen Nachamie, who is directing the Capital Playhouse production, which opens Thursday. “I worked in some off-Broadway shows when I was in high school. The whole area was a lot more bohemian and had a little bit of a sense of danger to it. Now everything is a little bit sanitized, and it’s become a place of chic real estate.”
“The Lower East Side is completely different,” agreed Jarvis Green, who will play Tom Collins. “It’s not even remotely the same.”
Nachamie and Green, who acted for Capital Playhouse while living in Olympia after college, traveled from New York City to Olympia for the production. And both men have a personal connection to the show. Nachamie was in college at New York University when he met the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, before “Rent” was born.
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“I remember thinking as a college freshman, ‘That is what an artist looks like, that is what an artist should be,’” Nachamie said. “He was very sweet and positive. I heard some of his music then. I remember thinking, ‘Here is someone who is going to make his work known, no matter what it takes.’ He was just a force of nature.”
Green, who was in high school himself when the show hit it big, simply fell in love with it.
“I was a senior in high school, so it had a huge impact on my life,” he said. “I remember having the CD and pausing it and writing down the lyrics so I could memorize the show. I would go through each song and write it out.”
The musical’s characters, more than one of whom is living with AIDS, celebrate each moment of life because they have seen so many people die. “Jonathan Larson actually changes the end of ‘La Boheme,’” Nachamie said. “Instead of a tragic death, Mimi’s story ends with the reminder to really be there and celebrate this life. This moment might be your last, so don’t take it for granted.”
Today, the outlook for AIDS has changed.
“It’s become a much more managed and manageable illness,” Nachamie said. “And there was much more of a stigma attached to it in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was seen as something that someone had to do something bad to get. The view of the disease has altered a little bit.”
But the theme that life is fleeting didn’t begin with AIDS and it won’t end there. Larson himself died of an aortic dissection at age 35 – just before “Rent” premiered off-Broadway. And there is still no cure for AIDS, which was identified in 1982. “In all that time, there still hasn’t been a cure,” Nachamie said.