Originally referring to people who would camp outside Broadway’s Nederlander Theater for hours in advance for cheap rush tickets to see the musical Rent, the term Renthead is now synonymous with anyone who has an obsession with Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical. Having seen the show 20 times in eight years (twelve of them on Broadway) and the owner of a few costumes and props from the original Broadway production, it is safe to say Mike Smith is definitely a Renthead.
About to live his obsession onstage, Smith (pictured right) will appear in a the upcoming Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Rent, the La bohème inspired musical about a group of impoverished young artists and musicians in New York under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
A revival of sorts for the group who previously produced Rent in 2009, the company is hoping to match the success it saw in that original production when it opens July 19 at the Waterfront Stage on Granville Island. But according to Ryan Mooney, the show’s director and company’s artistic director, audiences should not expect a simple re-tread of a show from three years ago.
“While it would be easy to just recreate our hit 2009 production we’ve tried to bring a new edge and excitement to the show as well as many talented new faces,” said Mooney.
One of those talented new faces is Smith who finds himself back on stage for a show that he can’t seem to get enough of.
“I haven’t done a show in a while, but I’m willing to give the time commitment now because of my love for this particular show,” said Smith.
While Smith’s Renthead status might not get him on an episode of TLC’s My Crazy Obsession, it is perhaps ironic that he will play the same role as his most expensive piece of memorabilia, a $350 sweater worn by the “Seasons of Love” soloist from the Broadway production. Picking up the sweater at an online auction benefitting the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS charity at the end of its run in New York, Smith has since added other smaller items to his collection including a few candles, a noisemaker and even a t-shirt worn by the character Angel.
Smith’s road to becoming a Renthead wasn’t a quick one though, as his first reaction to the musical was a little lukewarm.
“It wasn’t until I really started to listen to the lyrics that the show really started to resonate for me,” said Smith. “I began thinking about all these amazing songs and how astounding it was in 1996 to have HIV positive gay people represented on a Broadway stage. At the time we didn’t have marriage equality and I didn’t even have benefits for my partner. I’ve lost friends to AIDS and I know that struggle that we have gone through. ”
Having grown up as part of the original Rent generation and through the AIDS pandemic, Smith sees his real-life connections to the story providing a much deeper connection than some of the younger members of the company in this production.
“There is some amazing talent in the show but there are a few in the cast that are much younger than me and who don’t have the same relationship to [the material] the way I do,” said Smith. “This generation hasn’t been touched by AIDS in the same way but if you look at the themes of acceptance, love and struggling for your art, these are all things that people can relate to.”
But while the younger members of the cast may not have had an immediate personal connection to the musical the way Smith did, he is doing his best to help by introducing them to some of his treasured possessions. Audiences coming to see the production may also get an opportunity to see them too, as Smith is working on the possibility of displaying them at the Waterfront Theatre during the show’s run.
13 July – 5 August 2012
Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island
Rent tells the story of a group of friends whose lives collide on one Christmas Eve where their interactions will alter lives forever. The following year sees the friends break up, connect and ultimately learn to live in the face of adversity, poverty and disease.