The groundbreaking Broadway smash hit ‘RENT’ celebrates its 20th Anniversary with a tour across America

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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It’s been over 10,512,000 minutes since RENT took the world by storm in 1996, well over 525,600. But as Jonathan Larson’s original rock musical readies its 20th anniversary tour, it’s clear that every one of those minutes has indeed been measured in love.

The off-Broadway world premiere of RENT, a re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, took place on February 13, 1996. The hit show transferred to Broadway on April 29 of the same year and went on to captivate audiences worldwide. It even inspired a 2005 film adaptation of the same name, featuring much of the original Broadway cast and earning nearly $30 million domestically.

The stage production was the winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only six musicals to win both awards. The musical then, as the 20th anniversary tour does now, follows the lives of seven artists over the course of an unforgettable year (or 525,600 minutes, if you didn’t get the reference) in New York City’s East Village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

RENT’s music, a mixture of rock, pop and show-stopping Broadway ballads offers an extensive look at love and hope, but also of tragedy, something echoed by the far-too-short life of its creator. In 1996, Variety reported that RENT was “the best show in years, if not decades,” but noted that its composer and lyricist “died hours before the public got its first look at his masterwork.” Larson was 35 when an aortic aneurysm tragically claimed his life.

Still, as the show’s official synopsis reads, “with its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters—love.”

It’s a message that Evan Ensign, the 20th anniversary tour’s director who has his own decades-long history with the musical, clearly understands.

Ensign has an extensive theatre background and a love for his craft. Aside from his role with the 20th anniversary tour, he currently serves as resident director for The Phantom of the Opera in London. He’s also worked as director and associate director for Avenue Q, Les Miserables and Shrek, amongst others.

RENT – the 20th Anniversary Tour will play at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Sept. 17 and for a week at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Sept. 19-24. Ensign graciously took time away from his busy rehearsal schedule to speak with Watermark ahead of the show’s stops in the Sunshine State… and we were literally “Over The Moon.”

WATERMARK: Hi, Evan! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. This isn’t your first experience with RENT. Tell us about your original role. How did it come about, and did you expect it to become such a long-lasting success?

EVAN ENSIGN: I joined a year [after the original production] as production stage manager on the first tour.  My work on that led the director and producers to hire me as resident for the Broadway production which I did for almost eight years of the run.  By the time I joined, the show was already a hit and I just felt extremely lucky to be a part of it.

You’ve had quite a run both on and off of Broadway. How did your initial run on RENT prepare you for your work on other productions?

I think so much of what we do is about working with people.  Every job helps teach and prepare you for whatever comes next in life.  We learn to be flexible and to focus on what is most important in a show.

What made you decide to pursue a career in theatre?  

I saw my first show when I was nine and was really taken by the fact that, unlike movies, the performers were right there in front of me.  I’ve pursued work in theatre ever since.

What’s the most gratifying thing about working in theatre?

If you love the theatre, nothing is better.  I think if you don’t love it, it could be torture!  Theatre people give up a lot of their lives – they can’t have dinner with their friends, they work weekends, they have to care for their voices and not talk too much… But if you love doing it, it’s amazing.  I love what I do so consider myself fortunate.  The best thing in life is doing something you love.

You’ve worked extensively on theatre in the United Kingdom. How does your work overseas differ from your domestic work here in the United States? 

The training of actors is different over there.  It’s much more focused.  Over here, it’s a bit more emotional and you find the talent [is] a bit more raw.  Both are great.  It mostly comes down to how you work with individuals, so I don’t find it [to be] that much of a challenge.

It’s been two decades since RENT took the world by storm. How does it feel to step back into the show?  

We first put up the tour last year and it was amazing to re-examine RENT.  The show comes from the heart so it’s always a happy journey.  It was like getting to hang out with an old friend.

What makes the show so relevant today?

With all of the things happening in the world and society seeming to want to divide more than come together, I find the show more relevant today.  It is a play about community and diversity and finding love, and finding our place in the world.

What’s been the most gratifying thing about re-staging RENT for the 20th Anniversary?  

Seeing a young cast embrace the material and completely commit to the story and the characters.  They bring it new meaning.

What’s your favorite part of the show, or favorite number? Is it the same as in 1996?  

My favorite parts shift daily and always have.  Depending on my mood, different things will hit me and move me.  The characters in RENT are so like us and we have all been aspects of each of them at times in our life.  That said, I always am taken in by the gut-wrenching parts of Act II.

For those who’ve seen RENT, what’s unique about this tour? For those who haven’t, why should they finally see it now?

The cast makes the show unique each night because of how they live the play.  I think people should see it because of how current it is, in a different way than it was 20 years ago.  Some things are more relevant now. And how can one not want to hear Jonathan’s astounding score sung live by some brilliantly talented performers!

The RENT 20th Anniversary Tour will play at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $39-$55 and may be purchased at PeabodyAuditorium.org. The show will then be at the Straz Center’s Morsani Hall, September 19-24. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Regularly priced tickets are $31-$77, and may be purchased by calling 813-229-7827 or 800-955-1045 if you’re outside of Tampa Bay. They can also be purchased in person at the Straz Center Ticket Office or online at StrazCenter.org, where you can also learn more about the venue’s other upcoming events.

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