Paying ‘Rent’ Forward

“There’s only us, there’s only this."

March 6. 7:00 pm, Eastern Standard Time. It is the first technical rehearsal for Point Park University’s upcoming production of Rent — running March 13-17 at the new Pittsburgh Playhouse, located in downtown Pittsburgh. The theater is abuzz with cast members greeting each other and stretching while the tech crew makes sure everything is ready. Soon, the stage manager calls places and everyone scurries off to start the show. As the lights come up, the cast assembles on stage and acknowledge each other. Anyone who knows Rent well would be able to pick out which character is which by their placement on the stage. One of Rent’s principal characters, Mark (Sam Greene) stands center stage, seemingly taking it all in but also patiently waiting for someone. He wouldn’t dare to start the story if that meant leaving someone behind. Finally, Roger (Connor McFalls), another principal character, enters the stage with his guitar strapped to his body. Now that the scene is complete and everyone is accounted for, Mark can turn to the audience and utter those two very important words: “We begin…”

One of the major reasons why the late Jonathan Larson wrote Rent was to tell his friends’ stories. As he told American Theatre Magazine, “A number of my friends, men and women, were finding out they were HIV-positive. I was devastated, and needed to do something”. So he took the idea for Rent and ran with it. He built a sense of community into the script as well as into the original cast itself. Actor Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark, has spoken of a potluck dinner that Larson threw before the first rehearsal. Rapp told NPR that at this get-together, Larson “gave us this really lovely toast, which was, like, ‘You are bringing to life my friends, some of whom are friends that I’ve lost. And so, I wanted to open my home to you.’ “

That sense of community gave the original cast of Rent something to cling to when tragedy struck. The morning before the first public performance, Jonathan Larson passed away from an aortic aneurysm. Not knowing what else to do, the cast gathered that night with Larson’s family to collectively grieve while doing a seated reading of the show. By the second act, the cast was on their feet doing the fully staged version of the show. Their emotions made them get up and give Larson the tribute he deserved. After that hard first night, that first Rent community decided that they needed to keep the show going in honor of Larson. They also decided that they were going to keep it in the family, so to speak, and make decisions together on what was best for the show.

That decision apparently was the best one as Rent went on to have huge success. Four Tony Awards. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But accolades of that kind can tend to drive ticket prices up and that’s where Rent’s sense of community kicked back in. Jeffrey Seller, one of Rent’s original producers, told Playbill that the producing team felt the need to keep the show somewhat accessible for folks “in their 20s and 30s, artists, Bohemians—the people for whom Jonathan Larson wrote the show.” To achieve this, the producers created the infamous Rent $20 ticket rush line, and that led to a whole new kind of Rent community. “Rentheads” would wait for hours, sometimes camping out overnight, to get these tickets and they would bond over their love for this show and its message.

“I sat outside 20 times to see it in its original form,” says Todd Underwood, the director and choreographer of Point Park University’s production of Rent. “[Waiting in the rush line] It was such a community of people who were starving for something like this show. I could find myself in every single one of those characters. It was raw and unapologetic and non-judgmental. I think that’s why people saw it over and over again. It was a place to be celebrated.” And now, Underwood is taking the love he shared with his fellow “Rentheads” and the lessons he learned from the show and is sharing that with a new generation. “As a director, I try to lead the room in the sense that we are all a family here and we are here to support each other. The cast is an incredibly different mix of people but they are a family, a community. That gives the show a more textured world. And they’re a good group! I’m glad that this school provided so many talented students to pull from!”

During their run of Rent, the Pittsburgh Playhouse is taking this sense of community and extending it to their audiences and beyond. They have partnered with SisTers PGH to raise money for their existing Rental Assistance Program. Pittsburgh Playhouse patrons will be invited to donate online or in the lobby of the Playhouse throughout the run. SisTers PGH is a Black and Trans-led organization that provides holistic supportive services for Trans and non-binary youth, adults, and seniors experiencing houselessness, domestic and sexual assault, gender-based violence, and those living with HIV. The Rental Assistance Program is an application-based program that distributes funds directly to landlords to help trans folks keep their housing or obtain safe housing.

Friends of Jonathan Larson like to talk about how he wanted to change theater and Broadway for the better and it seems that he actually did it by just investing directly into the communal aspect of it all. He realized that his friends’ stories were universal, even though they were considered outsiders. That inspired the producers to do whatever they could to keep the core demographic in the seats and singing along to “Seasons of Love”. And now members of the original community of “Rentheads”, like Todd Underwood, are sharing Rent and its wonderful attributes with a whole new generation. You can join in on this magic and help members of our community in need by simply catching a show and donating to SisTers PGH. Remember, as Jonathan Larson stated simply in a Rent lyric, “There’s only us, there’s only this.”

Rent is playing at The Pittsburgh Playhouse from March 13 to 17

Jason Shavers is a born and raised Pittsburgh native. He is an actor that has worked extensively on stage and not so extensively on screen. Jason is also a self proclaimed expert on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Musical Theater and sitcoms that feature 4 women leads. Yeah, he’s gay AF. Follow him on Instagram. (He / Him / His)