In 2016, Rent kicked off its 20th anniversary tour, and finally reached Philadelphia in March of 2019. This fall, the tour returned to Merriam Theater on Oct. 18–20 for a bold, beautiful reminder of not only the joy of bohemia, but also the power of live musicals. Through Harnwell College House’s Arts House, I was able to attend the performance with a group of Penn students. And although I had seen the film adaptation of Rent before, I was unprepared for the wealth of emotions that this live tour would bring. Through a two–act format as well as passionate, surprising performances, the Rent 20th anniversary tour captures both the beauty and tragedies of a generation dreaming freely under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
With a show as diverse and complex as Rent, students walk away with different, resonating insights. Noni Unobagha (C ‘21), who attended the Arts House trip, finds her favorite song in “One Song Glory.” “It just has so much raw passion and emotion,” she described. Kelly Lopez (E ‘22), also on the Arts House trip, has seen both Rent’s film adaptation and a previous show of the 20th anniversary tour in L.A. When asked about the difference between the film and live stage versions, she described a more connected relationship between the audience and the show. “When there was a song just now, I turned to my neighbor, and we just both said, ‘I got chills,’ at the same time,” she said. “That’s really something you can’t get in a movie.” The song Kelly described was Collins’ reprisal of “I’ll Cover You” after Angel’s death.
In a beautiful, meta moment during “Finale,” footage of the cast and crew—having fun together, rehearsing for the musical—is projected onto the backdrop. The moment pays tribute to the sense of community that Rent depicts, but also acknowledges the community formed by the cast, crew, and audience themselves. Live musicals today have the power to immerse us in shared narratives and energy for a few hours. And with tours rotating through Philly, as well as a robust local theater scene, it’s time to explore beyond Cinemark, and take advantage of opportunities available through college houses, clubs, classes, or just good old student discounts.