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La Vie Bohème 

"Rent" Speaks to a new generation

The painfully talented cast of "Rent." - MACKENZIE WHITTLE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Mackenzie Whittle Photography
  • The painfully talented cast of "Rent."

There's an old cliché, that any good writer is supposed to write what they know. Before he wrote "Rent," Jonathan Larson lived in a loft with no heat on the fifth floor of a walkup on the corner of Greenwich and Spring in Lower Manhattan. While he had worked unsuccessfully on other projects, Larson didn't truly find his muse until he came up with the idea of a musical based on Puccini's "La Bohème," set in downtown Manhattan.

By 1993, "Rent" had been through workshops and a long collaborative process between Larson, producers and the director. The show was ready to open off Broadway when Larson died unexpectedly from an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. The cast premiered the show by sitting at three prop tables and singing the show through, but before they reached the end they were dancing and throwing themselves around the stage the way the show was meant to be performed.

This is how enduring legends are born in the theater, and Larson's posthumous Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tonys and Drama Desk awards sealed "Rent's" theatrical legacy. The story of young artists struggling to make a living under the late 1990s shadow of HIV and AIDS is aging beautifully. When "Rent" was initially released, it was groundbreaking in its view of a section of society that wasn't represented in popular culture.

Today, Cascades Theatrical Company is celebrating its 300th show with a production of "Rent."

Co-Director Brad Ruder speaks to the diversity inherent in the show. "(Musical Director) Ben Larson, (Co-Director) Mike Nowak and I got together months and months before auditions and discussed the nature of the show being very heavily centered on diversity and covering demographics that Bend didn't have largely represented. I think that every show looks for the best people regardless of what cultural background they come from. "Rent" wasn't like other musicals like "Hairspray" and "Full Monty" where a character HAS to be a certain ethnicity to make the song make sense, but that didn't mean we didn't try. Ultimately, we wanted the best cast, and we feel very strongly we got just that."

"Rent" just celebrated its 20th Anniversary and it's still just as culturally relevant as it was the day it came out. While tolerance is definitely more pronounced than it was in the mid-'90s, the marginalization of LGBTQ culture is still prevalent.

"The themes are poignant, the music is beautiful and moving, the characters are perfect reflections of many people in our society, and the show itself changed Broadway," says Ruder. "Jonathan Larson, whose story is beautiful and tragic, wanted this show to be the "Hair" of the 90s. And it was. It changed the way we viewed theater, the way we viewed each other, and the way we viewed the world. It got a younger audience in at a time when theater was focused merely upon our parents' and grandparents' generations. It created a new age of theater lover."

Ruder is the perfect choice to direct the show, as he has a special relationship with the piece that goes all the way back to his senior year in high school 13 years ago. "I really did see that these characters, the gay ones, were just like me," says Ruder. "I wasn't out yet, but I was still fighting my inner demons with what my feelings meant, and these characters spoke to me. There were people that felt like I did, who were like me, that could be open! Hell, there was a musical that followed their characters. It was really a moving time in my life and 'Rent' pushed me in the right direction."


Fri., June 9-Sat., July 1.

Matinees 2pm, Evenings 7:30pm.

Cascades Theatrical Company

148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend


About The Author

Jared Rasic

Film critic and author of food, arts and culture stories for the Source Weekly since 2010.
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