When I was seventeen – nearly twenty years ago – my school put on its first and only music theatre concert.
It was an absolute shambles.
There were no auditions; non-singers were given Sondheim songs they couldn’t even begin to learn; and no one was put on the correct vocal part. Instead we were organised by year group, meaning that the majority soprano and alto sixth form were made to struggle along on the bass line of ‘Rhythm of Life’, among other numbers.
But the one thing this chaotic and ridiculous concert did right, was introduce me to my favourite musical of all time: Rent.
At the end of the second half, all 150 of us, clad in green, pink and purple tie-dye t-shirts, formed lines on the stage to sing ‘Seasons of Love’, making even our usually cold and music-theatre-hating drama teacher cry. I asked for the CD of the cast recording for Christmas that year, and so began a life-long obsession with the musical that brought queer lives and loves to Broadway.
Although it took me until my late twenties to realise that I myself was queer, the foundation was laid in my late teens listening to Joanne tango across the 11th Street lot in doc martens, and Angel dance and drum her way through ‘Today 4 U’. This vision of a chosen family lived in my mind long before I ever heard the term. And as a young singer and writer, the bohemian ideals the group were so passionate about galvanised me, and helped to turn me into the activist I am today. This rock-opera that talked about living with disease, being hated and othered by society, fighting unjust power structures and loving whoever you wanted to love spoke to me in a way no musical had before.
Through every difficult time in my life, Rent has been there for me. When I finally left an abusive relationship in my late teens, I got through it by listening to the title song while I cycled through the streets of my hometown, pretending I was Mark with his camera. In university the day before I turned twenty I insisted one of my friends tell me I looked like I was sixteen so I could tell them that, like Mimi, I was nineteen, and just born to be bad. And more recently, as someone living with a life-long illness, ‘Life Support’ has been almost constantly in my mind as I urge myself to keep going.
It’s been a difficult year for me. Living with chronic illness is never easy, but I never dreamed I’d end up in intensive care fighting for my life at the age of thirty-five. When I lost my voice as a complication of surgery and the doctors were unsure if it would ever come back, my first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to sing again, wouldn’t be able to act out Rent in my living room and push myself through the hard times with music and song. Seems ridiculous not to think of speaking first, but singing – and particularly singing the songs from Rent – brings me so much joy, makes me feel so alive, that the possibility of having to live without it was devastating. The first time I put Rent on during my recovery, I cried my eyes out, feeling the same catharsis I have so many times throughout my life as soon as I hear the first note of Roger’s untuned guitar.
Now that I’m on the other side of that ordeal, finding out Stage and the City would be performing Rent in 2024 felt like a sign. I survived. I am able to be in this show that means so much to me, to sing full force about living with, and not dying from, disease. I would never wish to appropriate the struggle of those living with HIV and AIDS as someone who doesn’t, but as a chronically ill person I am so grateful for the lessons of community support, solidarity, and love that Rent champions. Those with sickness, though ostracised by society, are not left behind by the other characters. They are part of the family, part of the community. They are accepted, cared for, loved. Rent shows us that sickness is not something to be feared and hidden away, but a part of life.
And, as a queer person living in an age where homophobic and transphobic hate is on the rise, it means so much to participate in a piece of music theatre that champions anti-capitalist ideals, and speaks about queerness, not as a metaphor for depravity and otherness but as a source of strength and community. A musical that brought queer history, queer present, queer lives to the attention of music theatre lovers everywhere, and taught me to forget regret, or life is mine to miss.
Before I joined Stage and the City in 2022, it had been over a decade since I’d been in a musical, despite it being the only time when I can forget my troubles and lose myself to the narrative. Now, as I learn the first of the numbers we’re performing from Rent, I have to fight back happy tears. I never dreamed I’d be able to be in this show, to sing the numbers I’ve acted out so many times in my kitchen, and perform them with such a wonderful group of people.
Whenever I feel lost, or sad, or like everything in the world is terrible and hopeless, I dig out my old CD, dust it off and start from December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard Time. By ‘La Vie Boheme’, I feel once more like I can make a difference, that I can carry on. That I’m part of an us, instead of a them. After all, there’s no day but today.