FSSA’s Rent: What has changed since 2015?

Courtesy of FSSA production archived (2015) and Luke Studley Roberts (FSSA Rent Rehearsal picture).

by Brianna Almonte

As the opening night of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts’ (FSSA) production of Rent comes closer, students often ask cast members within the musical how and why certain shows have been chosen throughout the years. The question is especially pertinent this year because Rent was first produced in 2015 in Mr. Cacciola-Price’s (CP) second year of teaching. CP is FSSA’s the musical director and teacher of the drama studio.

Every year, CP adds a director’s note to the show’s Playbill and this year he went into depth with an explanation of the big question: Why Rent?

“When we first produced Rent in 2015, I was only in my second year of teaching at this school. Once it closed, I never anticipated returning to the show. In a student-made documentary of our 2015 production I am quoted saying: ‘I don’t think we’ll ever do this show again.’ And I meant it. Rent is a wonderful show, but I have tons of titles I am eager to produce. In a career of possibly 25-30 years, I have more titles than years in regards to shows I want to direct – so repeating a title wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he said in his director’s note of the Rent 2022 playbill. 

“It has been 1,058,400 minutes (2 years and 5 days, possibly more depending upon the show you are seeing) since our last live musical, Hairspray, was closed prematurely due to Covid,” he added.

CP goes on to explain that although for high school students COVID-19 is their first global health crisis, their parents, teachers and elders had their first glimpse of a health crisis during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The World Health Organization states that 79.3 million people have been infected by the HIV/AIDS virus since 1981 and about 37 million have died. By the end of 2020, the number of people living with HIV globally was 38 million.

At the time of writing this, globally, 458 million people have been infected with the Covid-19 virus, with 6.04 million deaths.

CP said it took six years (1987) for an AIDS awareness campaign to start and for it to be taken more seriously once it started affecting communities globally (although still regarded as a “moral” disease because of its association with gay men), while it took less than a year for COVID-19 to acknowledged by the government.

He then explains the commonalities of the show to today’s world. 

“The parallels of two health crises – 40 years apart – share similarities too: threads of injustice, protests, police brutality, housing insecurity, drug abuse and access to physical and mental health care were prominent in both. Communities of color and the economically disadvantaged were affected at larger rates than others,” he said.

Revisiting the show was also something that the 2022 Rent cast was ecstatic about as many of the members could relate to the characters or story in some way.

Netza Jimenez, a senior vocal major, has been in FSSA musical theater productions since his freshman year. Rent is Netza’s favorite musical so when he heard it was going to be the last musical theater show he would be featured in (playing the role of Mark), he thought it was an amazing opportunity for him and the rest of the cast, especially since we are living in a very similar time.

He thinks there was an appropriate amount of time between the last time FSSA performed the show and it is no longer fresh in people’s minds. He also believes that financially it was most likely easier to produce because most of the cast has brought in material to be worn and considered by CP rather than spending resources on new costumes for every cast member.

Many cast members including Netza feel like CP chose the show due to the greater message of living in the moment and loving those around you while going through hard times together. 

“We have had time to look back and see what worked and what didn’t. We have changed some blocking in terms of how the production looks, the lighting, and also the way that our general company is portraying has changed because of the times we are going through and the message we are trying to deliver to the audience,” Netza stated. 

The poster for FSSA’s 2020 version of Rent. Courtesy of Abe Ariel Productions.

Alexander Campos, a junior instrumental major (Guitar 1 in the pit for Rent) is excited that FSSA is doing a show that the school has already done since the pit has added in a lot of their own components. One of the biggest changes was no longer having the pit on stage. Ms. Best, the conductor for Rent and head of the vocal department, spoke about how this has been so beneficial to the show’s production. 

“The pit was on stage last time and I didn’t feel as experienced working with the pit. To be on the stage, under the scaffolding was scary. And our sound is much better than it ever was so things are progressing a lot,” she said. “The set is fierce and the projections are so awesome and add a great layer in telling the story from Mark’s [the main character in Rent] point of view as a filmmaker.”

Although most of the Rent cast is enthusiastic about portraying these virtuous characters in which a lot of the cast can relate to, Sophia Longmuir, a junior drama major doesn’t have a problem with the repetition of the musical, but the actual show itself. She thinks Rent glorifies poverty and doesn’t like how the two main characters who are living in a gentrified neighborhood are two white men (Mark, a filmmaker and Roger, a musician living with AIDS) which she doesn’t think does justice to the actual racial disparities. 

“I think it would have been more important to talk about the things that they do when they are poor and impoverished, but it’s not touched upon as much as I think it should be when tackling those issues. It doesn’t do enough justice to drug addicts and overdoses and the effect that it has on people and communities. I think it’s very performative and there isn’t any real substance in its message. I just don’t think that it was enough of an in-depth analysis to really be a well thought out play that says something about society,” she said. 

Although this is so, other cast members such as Olivia Summer, a junior drama major and Matthew MacNeal, a junior vocal major who plays Benny, believe that aspects of the musical highlight the extremes that people may do when they are in poverty and suffer with trauma throughout their lives. They also think that it is such an extreme due to the fact that it is a musical and that the core meaning of the show is driven by the characters’ individual actions and the culmination and results of those actions.

Johnathan Larson (Rent’s playwright) lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic and experienced many of the things that are shown in the play firsthand while loosely integrating it into the genius of Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. This is why the cast believes this show is amazing to open up with after two years of the musical theater program being shut down due to COVID-19. 

Sophomore Tsehai Marson who plays Joanne, believes that doing this musical again could really hit home with many viewers, especially with the amount of deaths that people had witnessed within the past two years and thinks that if FSSA were to ever repeat a musical Rent was the best choice for this year especially. 

“The similarities between the AIDS epidemic and how so many people were dying and what’s going on with this pandemic have so many correlations. Talking to CP about how during the AIDS epidemic people would have phone books and would have multiple names scratched out of people who died was so terrible to hear, but knowing that we are going through something so similar to that and can apply it to this show has really brought this show to life for me,” Tsehai stated. 

Daniel Stowe, a sophomore drama major was so excited to get the opportunity to audition for a musical that has such a strong resonating message and is so proud of the work that has been done.

“It almost doesn’t feel real that we are almost at the end of this whole experience. It has been so much work and time. Coming together despite outside forces and social problems that are spreading throughout the world has been really cool to go through with this cast,” Daniel said.

FSSA’s production of Rent opens Thurs. March 17, 2022 and closes on April 2, 2022.