Sunday, March 19, 2017

RENT, 20 Years Later

This week I had the privilege of visiting with an old friend. It's the 20th anniversary of the musical RENT, and I took Hannah and a few of her theater-loving friends to see the production, directed by their former drama teacher, at the high school they will eventually attend. I'll be taking Hannah to see the touring production here in Boston later in April.

I don't spend much time with RENT anymore, but in 1996-1997, it was a near-daily presence in the life of me and my freshman year roommate, Carol. I still have every lyric memorized. Carol surprised me with tickets to the show in April 1997. We spent so much time analyzing the intricacies of the plot, assigning roles to each of the characters among our group of friends. My role changed with my mood. I wanted to document everything like Mark. I wondered what my legacy might be, like Roger. I wanted a deep love like Collins had. I envied Maureen's confidence.

In 1997, I'd never paid my own rent, I'd only visited New York City briefly, and AIDS wasn't something I'd encountered personally, but I so strongly identified with this group of artists, forging their own paths into adulthood, seeking "connection in an isolated age." My friends were everything to me at that point in my life, and I miss that so much now. I knew back then that I'd never eat a meal alone unless I wanted to, that I always had a place to go, that every day had the potential to evolve into something special. And it often did. I used to back-date events in my planner, reflecting how things ended up rather than how they had been planned.

That period in my life was so short, given that I met Marc as I was finishing my last semester at school, and we were married by the time I was 24, and I was a mom at 26. My life took a path more towards Benny's character than anyone other. But "the need to express, to communicate," has still been an important part of my life.

I watched Hannah and her friends, some of them on the edge of their seats, as the drama unfolded before them, totally engrossed. I was in it too, but when the words complete themselves in your head faster than the cast can actually say them, it's hard to stay true to the moment. Until one small scene near the end caught me in a way it never has before. Throughout the show, the parents of the main characters call and leave messages for them on (gasp!) their answering machines. Usually a bit of comic relief, this scene shows four of the parents trying to reach their children, all of them asking where their children are. And I suddenly felt 20 years older. I'm closer to that point of being the parent, wondering where my child is, than I am to starting a riot in an abandoned lot. Well, maybe I never really was the kind of person to start a riot, but the 19 year old me used to think it was a possibility.

One of the things about great art is that you can find something new every time you come back to it. The characters of RENT may be forever young, but time has marched on for me. I still remember so vividly how it felt to be that person that I was back then, but I am glad there is so much left for me to explore. After all, there is no day but today.

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