Today…For You: Opera Wyoming Brings RENT to Downtown Casper
The date is January 25, 1996. It's what was to be the opening night of the preview of Johnathan Larson's newest show, a rock opera called Rent.
The previous night was the show's final dress rehearsal and it went off, more or less, without a hitch. Larson was in attendance and, after the performance, he was interviewed by a New York Times reporter.
"I think I may have a life as a composer," Larson stated.
Except, he didn't.
In the early morning hours of January 25, Larson's roommate came home to find Larson dead on the floor, a tea kettle whistling on the stovetop.
"An autopsy later revealed an aortic dissection—a tear in the artery that carries blood from the heart," Esquire reported. "It was believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. Larson was 35 years old."
35 years old. He was 35 years old. He was 35 years old. He was 35. years. old.
The night that Jonathan Larson died was also the opening night of his rock opera, Rent. When cast members and the crew found out, they were heartbroken. They didn't know what to do. So, they did the only thing they could think of. They performed.
At first, the cast had just opted to do a straight read/sing-through of the script, without any of the set pieces or extra theatrics. But by the time they got to the big number, 'La Vie Boheme,' they couldn't contain themselves any longer. They performed the rest of the show in full, dedicating that performance, and all subsequent performances, to Larson.
Rent was a hit. It ran on Broadway for 12 years.
The movie, Tick, Tick...BOOM!, based on Larson's life, said that Rent "changed the definition of what a musical could be, what it could sound like, the kinds of stories it could tell."
After years of writing musicals and one-man shows that just couldn't find an audience, Jonathan Larson became an overnight sensation. He just wasn't there to see it.
In body, anyway. But in spirit, he was all over that show and now, 25 years after its debut on Broadway, the spirit of Jonathan Larson still envelops each and every performance of Rent.
Now, the spirit of Jonathan Larson is alive and well in The Lyric theater, in Downtown Casper, as Opera Wyoming presents Rent to Casper audiences.
Steven Spicher, the director of Rent, said that Opera Wyoming approached him with an idea - one that he immediately jumped on.
"I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of groups in town over the years and have managed to set things up so that I can kind of step in every now and then," Spicher said.
Spicher has worked with the NCHS Drama Department, Stage III, the Casper Children's Theater, and more. He says that his real passion is acting, but it's impossible not to be passionate about this show and, more specifically, the cast that he has put together.
"The truth is, I'm a lousy director," Spicher laughed. "What I like to do is pull talent together."
And that's exactly what he has done with the cast of RENT. The cast skews a bit younger than what some may be expecting, but there's a reason for that.
"They bring energy and passion and adaptability and the willingness to try new things," Spicher said. "But they also allow themselves to be scared for a moment. A lot of older actors are like, 'Oh no, I need a net.' But this cast isn't like that."
Adaptability has proven itself to be an overriding theme in this show; a show that was put together in just about a month. The cast began working through staging at the Casper Children's Theater. A week before opening, they moved into The Lyric and built the stage. During their opening night, a technical snafu could have derailed the whole show, but the cast pushed forward. They pushed through. And audiences went wild, because even though the power went out, there was a different power on display in The Lyric on that night. And it's that power that has remained throughout each subsequent show.
Rent is a show, really, about having a chosen family. And that's exactly what the cast of this show have become.
"Another beauty of this show, another personal joy, is that there's a good chuck of these people who, in one way or another, I've been able to be involved with in the children's theater through the years," Spicher shared. "Andrew Brown was in children's theater shows since day one with me. Cam Allender was in Kinder-Drama. Jessica Cowen told me the other night that I directed the first show she was ever in. Same with Tiana (Saunders). My son is in the band."
There's a familiarity on display in this show, not just among the cast members, but for audiences as well. That's why Rent has continued to inspire, engage, and challenge audiences for the last 25 years. These characters are people that we know, people that we love.
People that we've lost.
"Being in Rent is incredibly important to me because the show is all about chosen family," said Andrew Brown, who plays Mark. "The bonds of love in these relationships are truly because these people have chosen to be in each other’s lives and they are often the only people who truly understand them for who they are. This idea is so important in our lives and the show really approaches everything from a lens of love and being there for one another."
And it's not just the characters that we recognize in this show; it's the struggles as well. While we are no longer inside of the AIDS epidemic that was rampant in the '80s, the LGBTQ+ community is still being oppressed; they're still being blamed for things that have nothing to do with them, such as the current Monkeypox outbreak.
More than that, they're still being told by those in power that their feelings aren't valid, that their lives don't count, that their love isn't real. That's something these people have to deal with every single day, and it's why shows like Rent are so important.
"I think the show of Rent is more prevalent in society than ever," said Taiya Vigil, who plays Maureen in the show. "With all of the issues we’ve been facing as of recent times, for the LGBTQ+ community especially, so I am just really lucky to be apart of it so I can be a representation for groups that need it."
For Dauvi Rodriguez, Rent provided an opportunity to see a bit of themselves in a show and, specifically, in a character. Rodriguez plays the role of Angel in Opera Wyoming's production, and it's a role that Rodriguez was born for; one that fits like a glove...or a high heel.
"This is so biased, but Rent's one of my favorite shows," Rodriguez stated. "And Angel...I love her to death. I discovered Rent around middle school and she was a good representation for me, because I saw an openly queer, black person on TV so I fell in love immediately."
Dauvi, like many people who first heard about Rent being performed in Casper, was pleasantly surprised, given the show's subject matter.
"For me, it's all about self expression and being unapologetically yourself, especially in a small little town called Casper," they said. "If you told me, like, two years ago, that someone was producing Rent in Casper, I wouldn't have believed you. So it shows how progressive Casper is getting, and that gives me hope and faith in this town."
And, really, that's one of the biggest themes of Rent - hope. Hope in uncertain times. Hope in less than ideal circumstances. Hope in the face of hate, in the face of oppression, in the face of death.
Jonathan Larson had hope. He had pretty high hopes. He had hope that he would "make it," that he would create something that resonated with people. And that's exactly what he did. In doing so, he offered hope to hundreds of thousands people via his show. That's what Rent does, and that's what Opera Wyoming's cast hopes to convey in each and every performance (of which there are only two left...and one of them is already sold out).
"The opportunity to be a part of Rent means a lot to me," said Kayla Colburn, who plays the role of Mimi. "I have always loved the idea of being a part of something that is bigger than me; to leave a lasting impact on others. I value emotions very highly as I think it is the most beautiful way for people to connect on a deeper level, and I believe that plays a major part in why people love theatre. They go to feel less alone in their personal struggles. Opera Wyoming has allowed me the opportunity to reach out to the Casper community and remind them that even when the darkness seems to take over, they are not alone; that they are important and cared for. My goal for the show would be to leave the audience feeling like they can make it through anything in life as long as they remember their loved ones at their side. This brings a sense of tight love and community to Casper, which is exactly what I'd hoped for."
When Jonathan Larson sat down to write Rent, he wanted to "write what he knew." Living in New York City in the '80s, he knew about being destitute. He knew about homophobia. He knew what it felt like to lose friends. But he also knew about hope. And he never stopped having it, not just for himself and for his own career, but for the world as a whole. That's why he chose to end his show not with death, but with life. Rent is a show about life, about loss, and about love (whole seasons of it!). That is what Opera Wyoming has brought to Casper. It's a show for those of us who have ever lost somebody. It's a show for somebody who may be struggling with finding, or embracing, their identity. It's a show that says, with its fist up and its chest out, that love is stronger than hate, than fear, than death. It's a show that allows its cast to hold fast hope. It allows them to say, with one voice, "Today, this performance, is for those who are misunderstood, who are lonely, who are scared. Today is for the musician who dreams of making it big. Today is for the couple who are constantly told that their love doesn't count, that it's not real. Today is for the young man or woman who are finally embracing who they were always meant to be.
But, most importantly, today...is for you."
Tickets for Rent can be purchased here, though there's only one show left that still has tickets available.