When Broadway performer Gwen Stewart heard they were closing down Rent last September, she was sad for a lot of reasons. She'd rejoined the Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning show as Mrs. Jefferson so there was the whole job angle. She loves the songs and the book in this modern-day (loosely based) revision of La Boheme -- lots of troubled lives and loves among young artists in the big city.
"And I've always thought this was an important show and it needs to be heard and felt by the next generation," she said. So she was very happy to learn there would be a national tour starting in January.
What makes this tour stand out from all the other Rent companies in the past 13 years is that it reunites three original cast members: Stewart (who sings the first solo in "Seasons of Love"), Adam Pascal ( playing Roger Davis) and Anthony Rapp (playing Mark Cohen).
"Adam and Anthony and myself are the three originals who are here," she said from her hotel room in Chicago last week. "I haven't performed with them in this show since the very beginning. I've come back, they've come back, but at different times."
Rent was created by Jonathan Larson, who became a legend for dying on January 25, 1996, the night before his show began its off-Broadway run. In less than five months Rent made it to Broadway and went on to win the Tony Award. Stewart believes the theater production is much closer to what Larson wanted -- much grittier, more earthy -- than the 2005 movie.
Being on the road is great, but tough, Stewart said. They're staying in Chicago for two weeks but mostly it has been one-week stays. "You know by the time you get settled, it's time to go. It's hard. I'm not 20 anymore. It's a hard singing show and the environment is not always conducive for singers. My allergies have been out of control here in Chicago." She's only been to Houston one other time for an overnight visit with a friend, but is looking forward to its more temperate climate (thank God she's not coming during hurricane season).
Even though high school students are among the most rabid Rent fans, Stewart said she knows that sight unseen, some people say that teens especially should not see it because of its characters that include gays, lesbians and HIV-positive lovers.
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First of all, she said, "I think young people can really identify with the characters. We all struggle with many things, identity of whatever kind, personal, physical, sexual, whatever. I think they really identify with these characters and kids sort of see themselves and it's a fresh voice. It's 13 years later but it's still a fresh voice for the youngster who's coming to see the show.
And, "Unless you plan to keep your kids in a box or a bubble their entire lives, they're going to be exposed to things that are unsavory. That's life. You got to take the good with the bad. There are so many good things to learn from this show. The show speaks of community, family and friendship. It speaks about being true to what your heart tells you to do and not sell out. It's okay to be yourself. These are the kinds of things young people need to hear."
A lot of people ask Stewart if the show is dated now. "My answer to that is I think Rent will be dated when intolerence against homosexuals or lesbians, homelessness, drug abuse, those sort of things Rent touches on, when these things have totally been abolished from our society, then it'll be dated but until then we need the kind of lessons that Rent teaches."
Seven performances of Rent are scheduled for the Hobby Center for Performing Arts, April 29 through May 3 under the auspices of Theatre Under the Stars.