Stage & Dance

‘Rent’ broke boundaries. 20 years later, young people embrace its larger themes.

Danny Harris Kornfeld as Mark and Kaleb Wells as Roger rehearsed for the 20th-anniversary tour of “Rent.”
Danny Harris Kornfeld as Mark and Kaleb Wells as Roger rehearsed for the 20th-anniversary tour of “Rent.”

When “Rent” hit Broadway and the Broadway touring circuit in the mid-1990s, it was a brash, boundary-breaking show, bringing to the stage homosexuality, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic, all set to a rock ’n’ roll beat.

Jonathan Larson’s show was celebrated in Manhattan, but presenters in flyover country — including Central Kentucky — braced for protest from patrons used to milder fair.

Kaleb Wells’ introduction to “Rent” was different.

“When the show came out, it was focused on young people and inner passion, inner struggle, and I was actually introduced to it by my mother, who was a huge ‘Rent’ fan — which is kind of interesting that it would be a parental thing and not teen angst,” Wells says. “We listened to the music in the car, not even really understanding what a musical was. It was just great music.”

Enough time has now passed that the children of “Rent” fans can step into the iconic roles that were created in 1996, when “Rent” became a generation-defining musical.

This weekend in Lexington, after previews last weekend in Bloomington, Ind., the 20th-anniversary tour of “Rent” opens with Wells playing Roger, the one with all the great songs.

I wanted to BE him. I wasn’t really wise enough at that point in my life to fully understand the whole ‘Heroin withdrawals/you have AIDS/by the way your girlfriend killed herself’ side of the character.

Kaleb Wells, writing on his blog about playing Roger in ‘Rent’

“Adam Pascal, the original, had that sound that was new and so cool and so fresh for the time,” Wells says of the actor who created the role of Roger. “It was musical, but it was also passionate and aggressive, and he’s got those big guitar choruses behind him.

“And that contrasts with the rest of the show, because you have all of these different musical styles coming in with the other characters like gospel organ line; up-tempo, rhythmic piano lines. But yeah, I definitely related to the big guitar chords.”

On his blog, Kaleb-wells.com, he wrote that when he was younger, he wanted to be Roger. “Not play him. I wanted to be him. I wasn’t really wise enough at that point in my life to fully understand the whole ‘Heroin withdrawals/you have AIDS/by the way your girlfriend killed herself’ side of the character, but he had great songs,” including “One Song, Glory” and “Another Day.”

As “Rent,” based on the Giacomo Puccini Opera “La Boheme,” opens, frustrated rock star Roger and his filmmaker roommate, Mark, are holed up in their apartment, burning anything they can to keep warm because the landlord has shut off the heat. The story expands as the audience meets other characters: Mimi, Roger’s new flame from downstairs, who like him suffers from AIDS and addiction; gregarious philosopher Tom Collins and his new beau, drag queen Angel, who lives up to his name; Mark’s ex, Maureen, and her new girlfriend, Joanne.

Roger spends a lot of the show off by himself, but Wells says he has really enjoyed getting into the character and interacting with the other actors in some of the show’s biggest numbers.

“‘La Vie Boheme’ is a great time,” Wells says. “It’s a huge party. It’s one of the only times in the show my character is happy and outgoing and ready for a party.”

This show is so necessary right here and right now in America because people need that message, and not because they haven’t heard it before, but because they need to hear it again.

Kaleb Wells, Roger in the 20th anniversary tour of ‘Rent’

Times have changed in 20 years, as have some of the issues presented by “Rent.” But Wells says he thinks the show speaks to a younger generation.

“A lot of these issues are so universal and so timeless,” he says. “AIDS, thankfully, is not as big of an issue as it was, but it is still very prevalent. Death and loss and joy and creation and passion are timeless, and everyone can relate to that.

“This show is so necessary right here and right now in America because people need that message, and not because they haven’t heard it before, but because they need to hear it again.

“We’re constantly inundated with messages of fear and hatred and xenophobia and racism from so many outlets, it’s refreshing to hear messages of love and creation and living each day and enjoying each day,” he said.

For Wells, that message started with his mother.

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY.

If you go

‘Rent’

What: 20th-anniversary tour

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 17, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18.

Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

Tickets: $30-$113; $20 front-row pit seats will be available 90 minutes before each performance at the box office, cash only, first come first served, and there is a $1 service fee.

Call: 859-233-3535

Online: Lexingtonoperahouse.com

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