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Fort Myers Theatre performs rock musical “Rent”

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Courtesy of Fort Myers Theatre
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It’s 1997. An angsty, morbid 17-year-old Latino sits with his high school girlfriend in the back row of an old theater on West 41st in New York City. They’d come to see a rock opera by the name of “Rent” not because the musical was set in New York’s lower East Side or had an incredibly diverse cast.

What had drawn Lin-Manuel Miranda to the Nederlander that day was the fact that the musical’s brilliant composer, Jonathan Larson, had died tragically at the age of 35 on the very morning that “Rent” made its off-Broadway debut.

“It was the show that made me want to write a musical,” Miranda would later recall.

Just two years later, Miranda penned the first draft of “In the Heights.”

Lisa Clark plays public interest lawyer Joanne Jefferson in the musical for Fort Myers Theatre. In her estimation, Jonathan Larson’s influence on Lin-Manuel Miranda is unmistakable.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Lisa Clark during a July 23 rehearsal for Fort Myers Theatre's production of "Rent." Clark plays Joanne Jefferson

“If you’ve ever seen “Hamilton” or anything by Lin Manuel Miranda, he takes a lot of inspiration from Jonathan Larson with his music,” said Clark.

“A lot of the dialogue is timed and rhythmic… This word is supposed to be an eighth-note and this word is supposed to be a quarter-note and you’re supposed to say it in this exact rhythm because you go back and forth. You’re singing and then you’re talking then you’re singing and then you’re talking. So, it has to be in that rhythm because it matches up with the music in that way. It’s pretty complex actually.”

The rousing Act One finale, “La Vie Boheme,” is representative of the rhythm, syncopation, and timing that Clark is talking about. The number illustrates something else that “Rent,” “In the Heights,” and “Hamilton” have in common.

“It is a rock opera,” points out Clark. “So almost everything is sung. There’s barely any dialogue in it.”

Because of the absence of the super high notes that characterized previous shows at Fort Myers Theatre, such as “Addams Family” and “A Chorus Line,” Clark appropriately calls the musical’s sound as belt-style music. And yet, its score includes incredible harmonies and unlikely duets, like “Take Me or Leave Me,” which Clark sings with Bry Grant, who plays her love interest Maureen Johnson.

For local actor and popular piano man, Dave Rode, playing the show’s resident musician, Roger Davis, is a dream come true.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Dave Rode during a July 23 rehearsal for Fort Myers Theatre's production of "Rent." Rode plays Roger Davis.

“This is music that I’ve been waiting to sing for over 20 years,” said Rode.

“It’s heavy rock. It’s rock opera. If you’ve heard “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it’s that kind of all out, balls-to-the-wall music. It’s loud. It’s emotional. There’s so much emotion in every single song. It runs the gamut. So as a musician, it’s great. You get to have soft, tender moments. You get to have loud rock moments. You get to hit great harmonies. As a musician, it’s a musician’s dream to sing in this show, for sure.”

The one song that thrills and titillates the entire cast is its most iconic number, “Seasons of Love,” as Lisa Clark explains.

“It’s 525,600 minutes,” said Clark. “Almost everybody has heard just that one verse. If you’re an audience member and you hear those first chords of the song, everyone goes ‘Oh, I now that song!’ And if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about what is it that makes up the time that you spend in a year.”

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Wedler Lordeus is understudy for two different characters in the musical. He wasn’t previously familiar with “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson before auditioning for the show. But he’s a fan now.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Cast member Wedler Lordeus at a July 23 rehearsal for Fort Myers Theatre's production of "Rent."

“Jonathan Larson did a very good job on this frickin’ musical,” effuses Lordeus. “It’s awesome. It’s literally awesome and I would say of how creative he gets especially in terms of arranging and the little inner self mini-monologues with the music he has.”

So is Spencer Barney, who plays aspiring documentarian Mark Cohen.

“There’s a few songs in the show that people who have never watched a musical will know. Just like “Hamilton,” [Rent] was at its time monumental. It spread the word about what real people are doing and what life is like for some of the undesirables, the people we really don’t like to think about much,” said Barney.

“It’s all just absolutely incredibly written. It’s honestly a shame that Jonathan Larson passed as soon as he did, but we have a couple of shows by him and they’re incredible.”

“Rent” follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. The characters are real. Their struggles and troubles are real.

Dave Rode observes, the musical’s overarching theme is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

“Even though it’s 25 years old, it’s still stuff we’re dealing with now,” Rode said. “There’s no day but today. You never know when you’re not going to be here anymore. So, if you’ve got something to say, say it. And if you’ve got love, you’ve got to give it. ‘We’re running out of time’ is the theme throughout the musical. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do when you gotta do it.”

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Cast members rehearsing for Fort Myers Theatre's production of the musical "Rent."

No less than Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken note of the poignant irony of Larson’s passing on the day of the show’s off-Broadway premiere. “Rent” didn’t just launch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career as a playwright and propel him to become an unquestionable Broadway giant. It inspired him to direct “tick, tick…BOOM!,” a 2021 Netflix film about Jonathan Larson and his work. There can be no better recommendation than this for you to go see this show.

Rent plays at Fort Myers Theatre Aug. 6 - 21. Go here for play dates and times.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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