The Just So Society has cultivated a reputation for providing, time and again, some of the best theatre that St Andrews has to offer. Just So President Tommy Rowe, director of this season’s anticipated production of RENT, sat down with our Theatre editor Ryan Hay to discuss this latest offering.
RENT is a seminal work. Following a group of disenfranchised creatives through the East Village, this contemporary adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme, set at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, Jonathan Larson’s eclectic musical was the defining production for a generation of theatre-makers, performers, and audiences. Just as Hair did for a previous generation, RENT changed everything.
This production has been “2 and a half, or 5 years in the making”. When he was cast in his first Just So show, Director Tommy Rowe explains, he approached Designer, now DoSDA, Caroline Christie about his plans to direct RENT in his fourth year. Joe Revell, Musical Director, discussed the show 3 years ago with Rowe in their time in the Alleycats together, and all of the pieces have finally fallen together.
“It’s taken a year longer than we planned”, Rowe jokes, “but one of the most important things for me about this show was surrounding myself with people I trusted”. Unlike Rowe’s last outing as a director, the 2-man song cycle The Last Five Years, this show could never have happened without a full team of committed and talented people, and these three, along with Producer Fiona Yelland, and Stage Manager Charlie Maguire are the team “[Rowe] could trust to take hold of the reins”.
This show has always been a part of Tommy Rowe’s life. “My entry-point to musical theatre”, he explains, “as a little kid, was at this summer camp where there were all these kids who had been doing musical theatre since they were 7 and 8, and they told me about this show that their parents didn’t want them to listen to – this raunchy tale about sex and gay people.” That show was RENT. “It was the first musical” Rowe notes, “that really connected to me on an emotional level”.
One of the most exciting things about this production is its hugely diverse cast – Rowe explains that it is his goal as President of the Just So Society to open up musical theatre to as many people as possible. The team have been “privileged to offer parts to five freshers […] at least 10 people in this 15 person cast have never done a Just So show before”.
Another really exciting part of that is the huge vocal diversity that comes with casting people from different backgrounds – the music from RENT has a hugely diverse range of influence, and that means a cast of “different people from different places and different singing styles – from former choristers, to a cappella singers, to people who sing in the shower before competing in professional Scrabble tournaments” (literally). That, for Rowe, is a real joy.
But why see this show?
“RENT is the biggest contemporary musical. It is essential viewing […]. This is a show, to be gross,” Rowe goes on, “about love”. As diagnoses of HIV/AIDS start to increase in the UK, it is important to realise that this is not a problem just for New York City in the 80’s and 90’s – but it is a problem that is creeping back in the world around us. RENT‘s power lies in reminding us that these victims, these sufferers are people like any we might meet in our day to day lives – “it’s not just something confined to pictures of sub-Saharan Africa – these are real people living with AIDS, these are not just AIDS victims […] they are people living with, not dying from disease”.
This is a part of the deeper power behind the production – a lot of things can make life incredibly difficult, and RENT certainly explores that, but it is ultimately a pro-life show. “One of the things that I’ve thematically taken from this show” Rowe muses, “is that at a certain point you just have to do what makes you happy […in this show…] people look at their situation, and they look at the brightest spot in it, and they use that to go forward […] it really is an inspiring thing […] it’s optimism, and it’s hope”.