Though the season here is winter, it is still “Seasons of Love” in the production of RENT, which comes to the Motor City in the Detroit Opera House from February 17-22. The play, written by the late Jonathan Larsen, follows the lives and loves of several twentysomethings who are also artists living in an apartment building in New York City in the 1990s. The characters, which includes an musician, a filmmaker, a live performance artist and a lawyer, cope with the AIDS and HIV virus as well as homelessness while starving and struggling to make it big in the Big Apple.
“You see these young people trying to make it”, said Jacques C. Smith, “but their careers aren’t going anywhere. How do they try to get their voices today when they’re sick? How can they get voices heard?”
Smith’s character, Benny, was also portrayed by Taye Diggs, whom Smith replaced in 1997 when Diggs started shooting the film version of Terry McMillian’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He starred in both the Broadway production and 2005 film version; Smith returned for the recent stage tour two months ago. Benny is the landlord of his friends’ building, but is accused by them of being selling out: going corporate and business-like now that he’s successful. Since 1997, Smith has replaced Diggs in the role and stayed for 2 1/2 years. He then went to co-starred on HBO’s acclaimed prison drama Oz for two seasons, and guest-starred on shows such as Law & Order, which fellow RENT alum Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins) has played as Det. Ed Green for nine seasons. Like Diggs, Martin also reprised his role in the stage and film version.
“[Jesse is] Incredible to work with” Smith compliments. “He’s a fantastic guy; can’t say anything negative about the guy.”
When RENT made its way onto the big screen in 2005, there was a mixed reception among the public, who thought they came to see an feel good, light-hearted musical, not one that is dark and depressing. The film version only grossed $30 million in the U.S. box office, but it has continued to develop a cult following since then.
“Some movies”, Smith states, “are written as screenplays. Even when you come to the play, you still feel uplifted. There are still dark elements, people die, and there’s still homelessness. [You can] Find darkness and bad within light and goodness; [you can] find perseverance in the end.”
Still, the message of RENT remains the same: “There’s No Day Like Today”. Though the Broadway show has been closed since September 2008 after 12 successful years, it is still even more relevant now due to the Great Recession, the rise in unemployment, job loss, mortgage, AIDS, and so forth. After completing its run at the Detroit Opera House, the cast and crew will then go to Los Angeles and start touring all over the States through August, and then Japan.
“It touches people in that way” Smith continues. “Jonathan Larsen wrote [RENT] for the stage; that’s the natural element. The stage version is very true to the vision of Larsen.”