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UPDATE: Show postponed till June 1; classic 1990s musical about sex, drugs and dying young returns to poke our anxious age.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE  - The cast of 'Rent' the musical, which plays at Portland Center Stage May 21-July 10.

A musical about a group of friends who can't afford their rent and are fighting developers who want to break up a homeless camp, all during a pandemic? It sounded familiar to Associate Artistic Director Chip Miller (they/them), too, when they were asked to direct the musical "Rent" for Portland Center Stage (June 1-July 10).

(UPDATE: "Rent" had to be postponed a week, now opening June 1, because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the production group.)

Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock musical is 26 years old, which puts a generation's distance between then and now. This is just long enough for a reappraisal.

As Miller told Pamplin Media Group, "Nineties fashions are in right now," meaning the look might seem anachronistic, but the feelings he wants the characters to portray are similar.

Isolation. Alienation. Fear. Insecurity. Desire. Love.

"Whenever you're thinking about planning a season, you think about the conversation that you're trying to have with the artists, with the text and the community," Miller said. "When we started talking about 'Rent,' the idea to find connection and community in a time of plague seemed really vital."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE  - The musical 'Rent' returns to Portland Center Stage May 21-July 10.

Choose your poison

The circumstances of the "Rent" era (1980s New York) and COVID-crazed Anytown America are so similar that the audience will be doing a double-take on every scene. The police roust a tent camp while the artists complain that they can't pay last year's rent. A deadly disease strikes after unsafe human contact. And in a crowded city where everything seemed possible, or in the metaverse where everyone is connected to everyone else, it's easy to feel alone and cut off from your family.

All this overlays on the usual game of comparing "Rent" to its inspiration, Puccini's opera "La Bohème," which was set in 1830s Paris. (Mimi the seamstress with TB, versus Mimi the stripper with heroin addiction; Rodolfo a boho poet versus Roger a boho songwriter; Marcello, the lovelorn painter, versus Mark, the lovelorn filmmaker.)

Miller has long been a fan. "'Rent' is a piece of theater that has lived in my heart and mind for as long as I can remember," they said. "I am so grateful for the opportunity to make art with this kick-ass team of collaborators."

Tell a Gen Z-er that this was the previous generation's "Hamilton" and they might run straight to YouTube. Electric guitars made musical theater seem relevant again, just as rap battles did in "Hamilton."

Jonathan Larson captured his own creative struggle in his early sketch of a musical "tick, tick ... BOOM!" which was revived and made into a movie in 2021 by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The latter said he was inspired to write his first hip-hop musical, "In the Heights," by Larson's "Rent".

You can hear the through line from Larson to Miranda in the talky songs and baggy rhymes, see it in the gritty cityscapes, and feel it in the tremulous introspection of the characters as they deal with macro-themes like love.

Workshopping

Miller said the subject of rent and affordable housing became top of mind as they worked with the actors. How can a director emphasize one thing over another, without changing the text?

"I firmly believe that it's about the dialogue that you're having with your collaborators." For instance, they talked it out and made the chorus of homeless people prominent on stage, instead of pushing them off to the margins.

"The text is 42 musical numbers back-to-back-to-back." Miller said a great director once told him to make his points forcefully. "If you want to make your point, circle it, underline it, highlight it. But it's not just my production, it's our production, and that community-based thought process is adding a real depth and nuance to that conversation."

"Rent" feels like the TV show "Glee," because it's a musical about music (and performance art). It's "Friends" with heroin, a bunch of buddies wanting to hash out their issues by putting on a show.

Miller explains. "Roger wants to leave one piece of art that lives on beyond him, and I think every artist has the desire to (do that). All of these artists in this play are trying to articulate something for themselves and for their friends and for their audience. Sometimes that audience is a group of people in a loft, watching a piece of performance art. And sometimes that audience is solely the love of your life, (you) wanting to sing the perfect song for them."

Phone home

Epidemics and housing insecurity were easier to marginalize in the 1980s. Today they affect the mainstream. But Miller points out that communication has changed since then, too.

"We communicate in a vastly different way than 30 years ago, and the way information is shared is completely different. Not only is it in your face in one's own community, also we have eyes on the whole world. There's just an overwhelming amount of information and experience that we have access to. That makes things both more mainstream and more siloed."

Although there were cell phones in the period, people weren't glued to them like now. "Audiences are smart enough to know the connection is not one-to-one. It's not like AIDS and COVID are the same thing. There's a difference between an airborne illness and an illness that is transmitted through fluids and needles."

Miller says some things were similar: both were diseases that the president {obj:62667:(Reagan}, Trump) was reluctant to say the name of. Some things were different: COVID brought the world to a standstill, and a vaccine was created in just 11 months.

However, inside that difference, Miller said, "We are able to make our own connections. What is very similar is how powerless a lot of people feel. I think the powerlessness that so many queer and HIV-positive people and their family and friends felt, is similar to a different kind of powerlessness that people are feeling right now."

The main theme, of finding love in your chosen family, carries over to today.

"It is a play about love and community at a time of illness and precarity. And we are in a time of precarity in our country."

Tickets: $25-$97 at www.pcs.org/rent-musical, 503-445-3700, or in-person from the box office.


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