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!