On Friday night, Musical Forum’s production of Jonathan Larson’s “RENT” hit the stage of Alumnae Hall.
It began with a spotlight on Mark Cohen, played by Anna Davis ’24, who made her way down the aisle that divided the audience in two. Transforming Mark — traditionally a cis-male character — into someone with she/her pronouns is one way director Sam Caplan ’22 has slightly altered Broadway’s classic rock musical.
“RENT” tells the story of a group of friends living in Manhattan's East Village, all struggling to heat their apartments, find meaningful work and pay their rent on time. Several of the characters are HIV-positive, but Mark — the main character — remains HIV-negative. The story focuses on loneliness, economic hardship and a life cut too short, while also maintaining a sense of love and community.
“I feel like (‘RENT’ has) been a through line through my entire life. I hold it really near and dear to my heart,” Caplan said. His directorial vision “tried to infuse a little bit more joy and whimsy into the show,” rather than focusing on the darker aspects of “RENT,” he said.
“It has a lot of kind of in-your-face elements, so sometimes the heart of the show gets a little bit put on the backburner,” Caplan said. “My directorial vision really focused around bringing that love forward more.”
Songs in the rock musical are loud, strobe light-filled scenes that also make way for softer numbers like “Seasons of Love.” Comic relief was present through numbers like “Over the Moon,” in which Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen, played by Alden Forbes ’24, imitates a calf drinking its mother’s milk. The cast also stepped down from the stage every once in a while and performed in the aisle of the theater.
Caplan explained that he and the rest of Musical Forum tried to honor traditional aspects of “RENT.”
“I feel like it’s one of the few shows in the musical theater canon that explicitly holds diversity as a value in its casting,” he said. “There were definitely conversations about making sure that we offered certain roles to certain identity groups and communities to ensure that we were kind of protecting the values of the show.”
The cast and crew also spoke about the hours required to produce the show, which has 46 musical numbers. Davis explained that rehearsals were usually four hours long and were held as often as five times a week since early February. But after seeing the final product, she added that “it’s fully, totally worth it to me in every way.”
The process of actually producing the show began over winter break, according to stage manager Lia Ortner ’25. She said Musical Forum was “working with a pretty condensed rehearsal schedule because finding space for student theater is often rather a tumultuous process.”
“Luckily everyone’s been really, really great and adaptable to the situation,” Ortner added. “Our sound designers, our set designers, have all just been so, so willing to drop everything and run to Alumnae Hall when we have the space” reserved.
After seeing the lighting cues, pit orchestra and staging team all join forces for tech week — which is the week before opening night — Ortner said she felt like the show came together well. “It’s kind of exactly what we wanted it to be when we cast the actors,” she said.
“The talent of the actors, musicians, director and everyone involved was instantly apparent,” said audience member Adeline Allen ’25.
Cast and crew members also emphasized the community that Caplan created while producing the musical.
“I think (Caplan) has really fostered an environment where we all feel very comfortable talking to him (and) talking to each other,” Davis said.
Ortner agreed, adding that the cast and crew formed “a work environment in which everyone genuinely likes each other.”
“Getting to all be a part of something that really genuinely means a lot to us … has made us become even closer,” Davis said. “I fully hope that we stay friends forever.”