Rent emerged on the Broadway scene in 1996, forever altering the landscape of musical theatre.
Created by Jonathan Larson, the musical is a modern adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Boheme, set in the gritty East Village of New York City. Known for its poignant exploration of love, friendship, and artistic expression, the legacy of Rent extends far beyond its original Broadway success. Its impact lies in its fearless portrayal of diverse characters, addressing social issues such as AIDS, poverty, and the LGBTQ+ experience.
As Rent takes the stage once again on a national tour, its enduring legacy continues to resonate with audiences, capturing the essence of love, resilience, and the pursuit of an authentic life. This time, under the direction of Shaun Rennie, the production embarks on a fresh and daring journey, challenging the boundaries of tradition while preserving the gritty, rock and roll spirit that defines the show.
Shaun is an award-winning NIDA and RADA graduate director who has worked across Australian premieres of new works to innovative revivals of treasured musicals. Drawn to stories of desire and heart, Shaun has received three Sydney Theatre Award nominations for Best Director, and won the Broadway World Award for Best Direction for his 2016 production of Rent at the Hayes Theatre and again in 2020 for his direction of Baby Doll at The Ensemble Theatre. Most recently Shaun has been working with Opera Australia as Revival Director of La Boheme and Assistant Director on groundbreaking production of The Phantom Of The Opera on Sydney Harbour. Prior to this he worked as Assistant Director on Aida. In 2021 Shaun directed the sold out 25th Anniversary production of Rent at the Sydney Opera House.
How are you tackling Rent this time around?
Shaun: I’ve directed the show twice before, at the Hayes and the Opera House – this time we’ve gone quite extreme. The challenge is always, ‘how do you do Rent and give it fresh eyes, and make it feel fresh, but not upset people?’ Because if you go too far, people are also going to be upset that you’ve messed with it. So, I think people are going to be excited. I’m really excited by this world. We’re playing large theatres, so when I was approaching it this time around I was very conscious of the scale of the venues we’re playing in. So that meant that we had to create some images that were larger, more operatic, essentially. And then, how do you do that without losing its rock and roll grungy, gritty feeling? I’m really excited that we have an amazing design team – Dan Barber, Ella Butler, and Paul Jackson. And I think, to be honest, having done this show twice before and having experienced people loving what I did with it before, and also not, I am slightly more prepared and less scared of upsetting the purists a little bit.
So this production was different to the Opera House season?
Shaun: Vastly. I think the Opera House was very tailored towards a COVID time and experience. It was very focused on ‘connection in an isolated age.’ We have the amazing opportunity to be like, “yeah, we liked what we did there, but we’ve got the opportunity to fix that.” There are certainly ideas that have like been with me from the Hayes production that are still in the show. It feels like this is the grown up version of the last two productions.
The Melbourne leg of the run is going to be in the State Theatre, known for its regular schedule of Opera performances. That must feel like a bit of a ‘full circle’ moment, especially as someone who has directed La Boheme (from which Rent is inspired by) before.
Shaun: I’ve been working in opera basically since I did Rent last time. I’ve been working a lot with Opera Australia and I’ve directed La Boheme twice – I’ve revived Gale Edwards production. The operatic scale is definitely on my mind. I think the imagery, the way the story is being told, it’s still gritty and about a community of young artists and young people coming together to tell their story. It’s very hands on, and sort of a combination of poor theatre and rock’n’roll theatre, but with some big gestures.
Why do you think that the story of Rent is still so resonant, 30 years after its premiere?
Shaun: Nick Afoa said this in an interview the other day, and he said it so perfectly – love never gets old, you know? And I think it’s so true. Musical theatre and theatre lovers love Rent. Young people love Rent because, at its heart, Rent is about celebrating life in the face of death and what it is to try to live a life that’s authentic, and free, and filled with art and passion in the face of great tragedy. No one gets through their life without pain and heartbreak and and hurt. It’s traditionally marginalised people saying “hey, we’re here, and we matter, and our lives matter.” I don’t think that ever gets old. And so this show is about those people screaming to be heard. And to be honest, that feels just as relevant as it did 30 years ago – the fight for equality and the fight for marginalised voices, the way that we love, and the way that we live. It’s vital and important, and I think it will always remain so. There’s something deeply tragic and eternally heart wrenching about watching young people struggle to survive, whether it’s cancer or COVID… young people are still dying, you know, and that will always move people: watching young people fight to survive.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
Shaun: There are a couple of moments that I’m very excited about in the production that I don’t want to give away. It’s the heart moments like “I’ll Cover You.” I will say, the moment that Mimi and Roger finally decide to be vulnerable with each other at the end of “I Should Tell You,” that’s a real big moment in the show for me. I think “Over The Moon” in this production is going to surprise people, we’ve done something radically different and I’m excited for people to see that. And I’m just excited for people to see this cast. They’re incredible. They’re just amazing. And they’re all bringing their incredible talents, but they’re big open hearts. There’ve been a lot of tears and a lot of laughter, but a lot of tears and open hearts in the rehearsal room. So it’s been a joy to work with.
Rent is currently playing at QPAC, and will be touring to Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, and Canberra.
For tickets and more information, visit rentmusical.au
Header photo by Pia Johnson