25 years of 'Rent': 25th anniversary farewell tour tells story that still rings true today

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As the cast of the "Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" wrapped up its opening number a few weeks ago at a theater in Kentucky, the entire audience started to clap. And Evan Ensign, the show's director, got really emotional.

"I wasn't expecting that. It was just being in an audience and having a collective response and interacting," he said. "Theater is about a relationship between an audience and the people on stage."

A year and a half after theaters across the world went dark because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Broadway finally returns to Detroit with "Rent" at the Fisher Theatre. It runs Tuesday through Saturday. Some seats are available for as low as $20.

"Rent 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour" kicks off Tuesday at the Fisher Theatre.

And for a musical written a quarter of a century ago by deceased playwright Jonathon Larson about a group of struggling artists fighting for survival and love amid AIDS in New York City, it's a story still very much current with today's social movements and the world we live, said Ensign.

"25 years ago Jonathan wrote a play where race, sexuality, religion, they're all friends. And none of it is brought up or mentioned," said Ensign, who has worked on various productions of "Rent" for 24 years. "He was way ahead of his time."

And it's about living through an epidemic, he said.

"Look what we've been living through," said Ensign, who is from Washington D.C. "The comparisons are so there."

For this latest incarnation of "Rent," Ensign said fans who know and love the musical will notice some differences, though he declines to say what they are, wanting the audience to discover them on their own. He calls them "big but small differences."

Written by deceased playwright Jonathan Larson, "Rent" tells the story of a group of friends struggling to survive in New York amid AIDS.

"True 'Rent' fans will probably go 'Oh my God!'" said Ensign. "And other people probably won't notice so much... It always changes slightly depending on who your actors are and how you want to tell the story. It's not always exact."

In some ways, Ensign calls "Rent" a "period piece" in that's during a time when the drug AZT was just started to make a difference in the fight against AIDS.

"You do it as the period piece that it is but we talk a lot about what's going on today," said Ensign. "Coming back after a year and a half away, there are so many things to talk about -- just being a community and being together. There's how we communicate but also some of the more social movements, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, things like that."

Alan Lichtenstein, Broadway in Detroit's longtime executive producer, said "Rent" is the "perfect" musical to kick off the return to live theater. The new season officially starts in early November with "Pretty Woman."

"People love that show. It's produced by an original Detroit person, Jeffrey Seller," said Lichtenstein. "So it's nice to have that back opening (our return). It's like a new beginning."

Ultimately, Ensign said, "Rent" is about love, family and imperfect relationships.

"It's a chosen family. But it's about love and family," said Ensign. "...'Rent' has so much heart and truth to it that people can relate to it no matter what."


'Rent: 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour'

Tuesday through Sunday at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.

For tickets, go to https://www.broadwayindetroit.com/shows/rent.