RENT: 20 Years On, The Revolutionary Show Hits Shanghai

By Erica Martin, August 9, 2018

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When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be Mimi Marquez when I grew up. My mom and aunt saw RENT during the Boston leg of its 2001 tour and brought the cast recording home with them on CD, making the mistake of playing it for me a few times in the car. One day, I grabbed it from the glove box, took it up to my room, and spent the next five years or so listening to it over and over.

One of the principal characters in RENT, Mimi lives downstairs from two other protagonists, Mark and her love interest Roger, in a dilapidated apartment building in New York’s East Village. I found her dazzling – not only did she have the panache to pair knee-high leopard print boots with electric blue leggings, her songs emanated self-assurance and wisdom. She was brash and irreverent but also devoted to her friends and unafraid to be vulnerable.

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Deri’Andra Tucker as Mimi.

Those who’ve seen the musical or the (not nearly as good) 2005 movie adaptation may know that Mimi is also an ‘exotic dancer’ at a nightclub, that she has a substance abuse problem, and that she’s HIV positive.

But when I listened to the cast recording as a kid, the lyrics’ abundant references to sex and illicit substances all went completely over my head. Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that some of Mimi’s life decisions came with a stigma, that people might see her as less of a person because of them, especially when the musical debuted back in 1996. The only qualities I saw in her were aspirational.

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Deri’Andra Tucker, the New Orleans-born actress who plays Mimi in the production of RENT that’s hitting Shanghai this August as part of the show’s 20th anniversary tour, also felt an immediate kinship with the character.

“I was introduced to the songs in high school, but after watching the show and seeing Mimi, I was like, I want to do that,” she says. “I was blown away. I cried watching it.”

Mimi is one of eight iconic characters in a musical that revolutionized Broadway with its frank depiction of life in bohemian 90s New York. The show neither judges nor glorifies its characters’ lifestyles, but it does promote their worldview centered on empathy, friendship and creative freedom.

RENT broke new ground in its depiction of racially diverse and queer characters, and it also humanized the homeless community, grappling with ideas about how these down-and-out young artists were still privileged in comparison. These themes combined with its dynamic rock opera score earned the show four Tonys and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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RENT was ahead of its time with its message,” says Tucker. “And people from all walks of life have stepped into the theater and accepted this story. It just shows how we should treat people with kindness and respect no matter how they choose to live their lives, because that’s not up to us at all.”

One of the countless playwrights who’ve taken inspiration from RENT is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind 11-time Tony-winning musical, Hamilton.  “RENT rocked my perception of what musical theater could be,” Miranda writes in a 2014 essay for The New York Times. “It was the first musical I had ever seen with a cast as diverse as the subway riders I saw on the way to school. The characters were worried about the things I worried about: finding a community, being an artist, surviving in New York.”

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This authenticity stemmed from RENT creator Jonathan Larson’s experience of struggling to become a playwright in New York before finally being able to stage a show. Larson died unexpectedly at age 35 on the morning of RENT’s first Off Broadway preview from complications with Marfan syndrome, which he didn't know he had. 

The treatable disease went undiagnosed in part because he never had money for proper healthcare during the many years he spent writing his plays, which only makes RENT’s message about society’s role in taking care of its artists, its poor and its marginalized all the more painfully relevant. As Larson’s sister Julie said a few months after his death, while accepting the award for Best Original Score on his behalf at the 1996 Tony Awards: “It took Jonny 15 years of really hard work to become an overnight sensation.”

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The show lives on through other members of its original creative team, like musical supervisor Tim Weil and choreographer Marlies Yearby, who both continue to work with the new cast, including Tucker and her co-star Logan Farine, who’ll play Roger Davies during the Shanghai run. Roger is essentially Mimi’s foil: a shut-in who never leaves his apartment, he’s fearful, fatalistic, and has closed himself off from life to cope with past trauma. 

When asked about his favorite part of the musical, Farine cites ‘What you Own,’ an essential moment at the climax of the show when his character and Mark both have creative epiphanies. But he also has a soft spot for ‘Seasons of Love,’ the musical’s most famous and oft-covered song.

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Logan Farine as Roger.

“We were told during rehearsals that ‘Seasons of Love’ is like a gift for the audience. It’s the one moment that’s not about us at all,” Farine says. “It’s for everybody, to remind them that everything is about love, and that they need to not worry about the small things.”

For the latest evidence of RENT’s enduring influence, look no further than the 2018 Tony Awards ceremony in June, during which a group of student survivors of the Parkland shooting sang a moving rendition of ‘Seasons of Love.’ 

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As for Mimi, I’m even more convinced that she’s a heroic figure now that I know the full texture of her character. Tucker’s thoughts on the most meaningful part of RENT reveal that she might agree. She cites the song ‘Another Day,’ when Mimi bursts uninvited into Roger’s apartment and makes plain her feelings for him, reciting one of the show’s most enduring taglines: “No day but today.”

“Mimi is trying to drill into Roger’s head that he just needs to get out and live his life,” Tucker says of the song. “She just bum-rushed into his apartment, and she’s on top of a table, pouring her heart out to him. It kind of changed the way that I think about life in general. I try to live my life that way now – every day as if it’s your last, relishing every moment, enjoying your time.”


Aug 30 – Sep 12, 7.30pm, additional show at 2pm on weekends, RMB180-680. SAIC Shanghai Culture Square, see event listing, buy tickets.

All photos courtesy of show organizer.

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