Johnathan Larson’s seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 musical Rent is beloved of musical theatre fans the world over. Known for its intense themes ranging from AIDS to racism to homosexuality, irreverent characters based on people in Larson’s own life, and complex musicality, the show is a controversial and brave choice for any amateur drama society. But it might seem a particularly unusual choice for the Leonardian Players, a drama society made up almost entirely of former collegians of St Leonard’s College, a Catholic school situated in Brighton.
Stephanie Zolis, the Director, disagrees: “It might seem like an unusual choice but when the question came up, everyone agreed that it was the perfect [musical] to do. There was such support and excitement about it; everyone wanted to do it.”
However, Zolis says she was aware of the difficulties facing the Players as they tried to relate to characters outside their personal experience. “The world that is familiar to us Bayside kids and the world of Rent are completely different. We needed to work out how to understand these characters that are so far from our own experience, you know … they’re living in New York, they’re struggling with money, some of them are living with AIDS – it was very new to us.”
Zolis says that they worked their way around this by using a “dramaturgy” board, which the cast and crew filled with research about the production. “At the start I gave them all homework … we researched New York, Larson, the period in which it was written, AIDS… we wanted to understand everything we could about these characters in order to understand them.”
The central story of Rent, parodied and referenced in countless TV shows and movies of recent years, follows a disparate group of vibrant, down-and-out characters, many of them homosexual, sharing a New York apartment block, as they struggle to scrape enough money together to pay the rent. Many of the characters are battling drug addictions or AIDS.
This is a directorial debut for Zolis, who is a previous student of the school, and she was less familiar with the musical than the rest of the cast and crew: “When we started out, I knew nothing of Rent other than the songs. I started watching a video of the Broadway show and tried to get a handle on it as a show, then instantly tried to forget everything I’d seen in order to keep it fresh. I wanted to start from scratch and make it real.” Zolis is currently undertaking a Law and Performing Arts degree at Monash University. Now that she is more familiar with Rent, she loves the material. “It’s such a wonderful musical,” she says. “The message is really important. It’s truthful.”
The cast were selected during a two-week audition process, the result of a general call-out to the Players, which saw Zolis and her production team select the seventeen-strong ensemble from thirty. Only two of the final cast are not former students of the school. “We had trouble finding a Benny,” Zolis says. “I was never really worried because I had a feeling we would find someone. But we had been rehearsing for almost two weeks before we finally found the right Benny.”
Many of the cast are new to musical theatre, and Zolis says that the big name of Rent held wide appeal for them. The show also features a six-piece band, who Zolis describes as “fantastic musicians – even though many of them are new to the process of musical theatre, everyone is so accomplished.”
Zolis played a role in a range of different areas, including casting, set design and lighting. The set follows a “simple” design, she explains, with scaffolding playing a large role in the backdrop. “The big sets from the Broadway production wouldn’t work on our little stage and smaller budget,” she says. “But besides that, I wanted to do something different. I really wanted it to look raw.” This would be in keeping with the gritty hyper-realism of the script and the hard-hitting themes. The set was constructed by a Leonardian student, Nicole Noy, and Ken McAlpine, one of the teachers at the school, made the scaffolding. “There have been heaps of people putting up their hands to help out, we’ve been lucky,” Zolis says. “We have a smaller budget, so we rely on our enthusiastic cast and the support of the school.”
The themes of the show have had a strong impact on the cast and everyone involved, to the point where the Players have decided to give all profits to an AIDS charity. “We thought we should do some good with the profits,” Zolis explains. “Rent has a message and I wanted to emphasize that. It’s not just a musical, it’s got something important to say.”
Rent is showing on 10th, 11th, 15th and 16th September at the Kevin Wood Centre, 163 South Road, Brighton East 3187. Adults: $20, Students: $15. Please email [email protected] for more details.