Cowan Palace: Christmas Bells ARE Ringing

Ashley Cowan talks about being young, Rent, and re-discovering the musical as an adult.

I was 17, on the verge of graduating high school, when my candle was officially lit.

The candle, of course, being the burning passionate flame I once held for the Broadway musical, Rent.

Inspired by the opera La Boheme by Puccini, re-envisioned by Jonathan Larson in 1996, it’s the classic story of a New York filmmaker capturing the lives of his friends as they live through the AIDS crisis. Rent played over 5,000 shows, making it the seventh longest running Broadway musical and forever changing the lives of countless teenagers everywhere.

When our choir offered a field trip to New York City complete with a visit to the Met and the chance to see a show, I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. Partially because it meant getting out of school but mainly because I had just joined (read: became obsessed with) drama class and would do anything to get a little closer to the lights of Broadway; believing in my young heart that perhaps I’d get discovered in the audience and be able to join the cast.

I can’t remember a whole lot from the day other than giving a homeless man $1 for a book of his poetry (I’ve always been a bargain shopper). But I’ll never forget sitting down in the very last row of the Nederlander Theatre that evening and taking in the bare and exposed stage before the lights dimmed and the room burst into action. And I couldn’t look away. I was hooked.

But I mean, come on, who wouldn’t be at that age? All the angst, the passion, the catchy tunes?! I grew up in a small town where kids notoriously waited until they had graduated high school before faintly whispering about their true sexual orientations and here on stage before us were men who loved other men, women who dated other women… and men (and sometimes cheated on them while jumping over the moon!), and kids only slightly older than me who openly talked about sex and life and troubles and dreams! I felt like we’d easily get along. No, I didn’t take AZT breaks but I sure didn’t want to have to worry about how to pay next year’s rent either.

When I returned home late that night, I set a Saturday morning alarm so I could get to Borders (remember Borders?) early and buy the Rent CD. I then sprawled out on my bedroom floor and played disc one while singing along with the lyric booklet. When I was confident I had memorized each word, I put in disc two. It was a wild weekend. For whatever reason, I HAD to learn everyone’s part too. Because, seriously, you never know when a white teenage girl may get cast as Benny in Avon, Connecticut. And for weeks, quoting a Rent lyric was the only suitable AIM away message I could write. What I’m trying to say to you guys is, I was a total loser in high school.

And while my flames for Rent have quieted a bit as I’ve grown up, I can’t deny that I still enjoy it and probably always will. Which is why it was quite the treat to get the opportunity to be involved with Theater Pub’s December show: Christmas Bells Are Ringing. Which, for the record, is NOT a production of Rent. But if Act One of Rent had a cover band, it would sound a little like our show, wink wink. Get ready to revisit some bizarre code names for drugs and other precious gems of the 90’s.

But before we perform in this epic tribute performance, I’d love to know, from all those in this diverse theater community: what was your initial reaction to Rent? How old were you when swooned for Roger or wanted to go out with Mimi? Has your opinion changed throughout the years? Actually paying your rent as an artist can do that after all. So… would you light my candle? And this time, by candle, I mean participating in this discussion. Come moo with me in Cowan Palace; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

3 comments on “Cowan Palace: Christmas Bells ARE Ringing

  1. Danielle says:

    I first heard RENT in 4th grade because my sister brought home the sound track after seeing the play (and performing seasons of love) in 8th grade. I didn’t understand all that went on, but I was hooked. I had some favorites, and some ones I would skip over when they came on, but I played the CD and read the lyrics until they were memorized.
    I saw the play a year later at the Bushnell because our parents knew how much we loved it. I laughed at the right times, smiled when I understood why some lyrics needed stage direction associated with them, and bawled when we lost Angel.
    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it twice since then, once on broadway staring Joey Fatone as Mark (not ideal) and am an owner of the movie adaptation. Watch the extras if you ever have time, and keep tissues close by.

  2. Amanda C says:

    I grew up in small town Vermont so I didn’t even hear of Rent until freshman year of college. I remember upon first listen thinking Angel was really annoying, and then upon seeing the show (multiple times in multiple cities) thinking he was downright wonderful. Rent is a serious turning point in the lives of all teenaged theater lovers and I was no exception. Still to this day, a good 10 years later, I still sing La Vie Boheme to myself while I do chores…it’s just more fun that way. I’ve seen funnier shows and I’ve seen sadder shows, but I don’t know that I will ever see a show that mixed humor so with tragedy so deftly, or inspired me so completely.

  3. Kevin Cowan says:

    It’s funny that the reason I know almost every word of every song is because the Rent CD was constantly being played in our house. The lyrics must have entered my memory like osmosis.

    And who can forget that one car ride where we duet’ed the voicemail mail song. Not to mention, “How we gonna “paintttt”? How we gonnnaa “painnnttt”. Last year’s RENT!”

    I finally saw Rent in person when my good friend Paul starred as Mark in Sacred Heart’s rendition. It was great to finally put the songs I knew by heart into context. I’m pretty sure I sung along softly to myself throughout the show.

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