A season of love begins in SeoulNo day but today - to get your tickets to “Rent,” that is. The Broadway production of the hit musical will be in Seoul next month for a week and a half while on its world tour.
Since its 1996 debut, the musical has become a cult classic, attracting rabid fans - called “Rentheads” - and detractors along the way. A remake of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” set in late 1980s New York, Rent puts edge into the classic story of doomed love and artistic ideals.
At the center of the story are three couples - rock star and recovering addict Roger (played by original cast member Adam Pascal) and Mimi (Lexi Lawson), a pole-dancing teenager; Collins (Michael McElroy), a gay philosophy professor, and Angel (Justin Johnston), a cross-dressing percussionist; and chronically unfaithful performance artist Maureen (Nicolette Hart) and lesbian lawyer Joanne (Haneefah Wood).And, as the late composer Jonathan Larson would attest, like many a couple in Alphabet City at the time, two of the three couples have AIDS.
This fact injects a strong sense of tragedy into the show, which could be more accurately described as a “rock opera.” When life is literally on the line, these bohemian residents of the East Village have no choice but to live in the moment - as seen in numbers such as “Another Day” and “Life Support,” both of which urge audiences to “forget regret, or life is yours to miss.”
The specter of death bleeds into real-life aspects of the show, too, as Larson died in 1996 of a sudden brain aneurysm just after the final dress rehearsal of Rent. After seven years devoted to its development, the composer never saw the phenomenon that the musical eventually became.
But disease isn’t the only focus of Rent. Technology comes heavily into play while the community of artists grapples with the encroachment of the digital age. In the show, Benny (Jacques C. Smith), a former roommate of Roger, creates a new movement called “cyber arts.” As if it wasn’t already complicated enough, Benny has also, by the grace of marrying up, become everybody’s landlord. And Benny’s last girlfriend? None other than Mimi.
Add this to the fact that Roger’s best friend Mark (Anthony Rapp, also of the original cast), a filmmaker, used to date Maureen, and you’ve got one tangled web of romance. It’s no wonder that the show’s program comes with a flowchart of relationships.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards, Rent was one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. But today its focus on AIDS and the evils of technology - now considered passe complaints in some circles - lead to accusations that it’s simply outdated. It’s been parodied many times; for example, the film “Team America: World Police,” features a “Broadway” song called “Everyone has AIDS.”
And with Rent’s irreverent, blatant raciness, more conservative Korean audiences may not exactly find it easy to identify with. After all, its lyrics include the lines, “To sodomy/ It’s between God and me/ To S&M” - hardly congruent with Seoul’s skyline of neon red crosses.
But with appealing themes of loving and living with zeal, music that borrows from Puccini’s virtuosity and local Rentheads’ infectious enthusiasm, new audiences may find themselves easy converts to fandom. After all, what cold heart wouldn’t melt to “Seasons of Love”?
“Rent” will run Sept. 8 to 20 at the KBS Performing Arts Hall in Yeouido, near National Assembly Station, line No. 9, exit 4. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from 40,000 won ($32) to 200,000 won at http://ticket.auction.co.kr, or call 1566-1369 (English available). Children under 8 will not be admitted.
By Hannah Bae [email@example.com]
Top left, the drag queen Angel (Justin Johnston) is one of the AIDS-afflicted characters in “Rent.”
Unlike many Seoul musicals, “Rent” will be performed here in English with an all-foreign cast. All photos provided by New Venture Entertainment