Jonathan Larson’s Rent takes Dramat mainstage
The musical, which premieres tonight at the Yale University Theater, tells the story of the struggling artist in New York City during the 90s.
The Yale Dramatic Association, or the Dramat, premieres their fall mainstage musical production “Rent” on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m., at the University Theater.
“Rent,” a 1995 rock musical with music, lyrics and accompanying book by Jonathan Larson, follows the life of several young artists living in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. It is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” which follows young artists living in Paris during the 1800s.
“Ultimately, Rent tells a story that is both really exciting and has captivated audiences with its wonderful music since it came out in the 90’s; it’s kind of one of the most iconic musicals of all time,” said Sam Bezilla ’24, the current president of the Dramat. “But also the themes of it relate to the public health crisis, specifically the AIDS epidemic, housing insecurity, economic insecurity, racism — these are things that are obviously so important and so active today.”
The largest theater group at Yale, the Dramat produces two mainstage shows a year, where a professional creative team including a light designer, sound designer, set designer and costume designer, are hired to work with a student crew and student actors. “Rent” was chosen as the 2022 fall mainstage last winter.
Production for “Rent” began last spring. Lily Pérez YC ’24, the fall mainstage producer, has been working with the professional designers and student crew through the spring and summer to prepare for the production.
“We usually get around 60 applications from professional directors, and then we work together to interview and select a team of four professional designers,” Pérez wrote. “We haven’t hired outside designers since 2019, so this has been a year of rebuilding our institutional knowledge and figuring out our best practice for professionals.”
Andrew Watring, the Dramat’s external director of “Rent,” has decided to put a unique twist on the production. The musical will be reformatted as a play within a play, one that memorializes the life and teachings of the character Angel Schunard, a cross-dressing street performer and one of the protagonists of “Rent,” who learns they are HIV positive during the musical.
Calaway Swanson ’25 plays Mark Cohen, the main protagonist of the musical. Mark is a struggling Jewish filmmaker and the narrator of the story in the original Broadway production. Swanson utilizes the ways he identifies with his character in real life to help bring the character to life on stage.
“Because of his own deep-seated fear of losing his loved ones to the AIDS/HIV Pandemic, Mark holds himself back from becoming too attached to his friends, who we soon realize are a second family to him,” Swanson wrote. “I have certainly struggled with opening up to new friends for fear of rejection. I think we all guard our hearts in one way or another, so I found I could very easily sympathize with that aspect of the character.”
Auditions for the musical were held at the end of August, and rehearsals have been ongoing ever since. Bezilla estimates that nearly 100 students on campus are in some way involved in the production.
While Pérez acknowledges that the scale and complexity of the musical is a major undertaking, she is excited to see the show come together in the week before it opens.
“What makes a production of this scale challenging is also what makes it exciting,” Pérez wrote. “This is a 42 song rock opera with a 15 person cast in Yale’s largest theater, and we have to put all the tech elements together in one and a half weeks.”
Bezilla’s favorite part of this production process has been witnessing the collaboration between students and professionals to help bring an artistic vision to life.
“I think it’s exciting to see so many people come together to both create art and support others who do,” Bezilla said. “Because I think there are so many wonderful artists involved with this production- the professional director, the designers that we hire, all the students in the cast … There are so many people working so hard just to let these students make their art.”
Beta Lomeda ’26 is a cast member of the “Rent” ensemble. Lomeda describes “Rent” as a topical musical, one that touches on many societal topics still relevant today. However, she acknowledges that there is further room in the directional techniques of the musical to make it more relevant in this day and age and urges us to reflect upon the depiction of different characters on stage.
Since many themes of the musical coincide with the upcoming Hunger and Homelessness awareness week from Nov. 13-17, the Dramat has partnered with Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, or YHHAP, for this production of “Rent.” The Dramat encourages show goers to support its incentives.
On Friday, Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. in the University Theater, the Dramat will be hosting a panel entitled “Creating a Path Forward: Addressing Housing Insecurity” with community activists to discuss the themes of housing injustice, public health crisis and racism in the musical and how they relate to us in current day New Haven.
“Rent” will be performed at the Yale University Theater from Nov. 9-12 at 8 p.m. Tickets for these performances are $6 for students and $15 for adults and can be purchased on Dramat’s website. A 2 p.m. matinee performance will also be held on Nov. 12, and tickets for this show will be pay-what-you-can.