Mark (Matthew Janisse, L) and Roger (James Murray C) confront Mimi (Leigh Ellen Jones) in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Rent.’ The musical is at the theater Sept. 2-7. Photo provided.
Mark (Matthew Janisse, L) and Roger (James Murray C) confront Mimi (Leigh Ellen Jones) in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Rent.’ The musical is at the theater Sept. 2-7. Photo provided.
“Rent” is not being censored at the Wagon Wheel Theatre so it retains its “R” rating. But anyone who doesn’t go because of the strong language and content will miss a meaningful show, according to two members of its cast.
“It is a very edgy show but we are not doing anything gratuitous intentionally, and (Artistic Director) Scott (Michaels) has made that perfectly clear. In some productions they go for shock value. We are not going for shock value. We are just going for the message: The message to love everyone and accept your own baggage and love people through that. So by the end of that show, that message is plastered all over the walls. So I hope they walk out with that feeling at the end. The feeling of hope and love and just joy for being alive,” said James Murray, who plays Roger Davis.
“Rent” is at the Wagon Wheel Sept. 2-7. Show times are 8 p.m. Sept. 2, 3, 5 and 6; 7 p.m. Sept. 4; with matinees at 2 p.m. Sept. 6 and 7.
“Rent” is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La bohéme.” It’s a rock musical that tells the story of young, poor, struggling artists trying to survive in New York City’s East Village. Some are HIV positive. Jonathan Larson wrote the music and lyrics for “Rent,” which opened  Jan. 25, 1996. The night before the show’s off-Broadway premiere, Larson died of an aortic dissection.
The show not only won a Tony Award for Best Musical, but also a Pulitzer Prize. Its initial run on Broadway lasted 12 years.
Murray and Matthew Janisse sat down for an interview Tuesday morning to discuss the musical and their characters. Janisse plays Mark Cohen, Roger’s roommate.
“(Mark) is the narrator of ‘Rent,’” said Janisse. “He’s a filmmaker. ‘Rent’ is really seen through the lens of Mark, through his life, of these friends that live together.”
Murray described Roger as a “recovering drug addict with AIDS. He kind of works into the puzzle as learning how to survive with this and not just survive but thrive and enjoy life.”
“Rent” is the first time Wagon Wheel has had an “encore” show that’s not a part of the summer season but comes only a couple of weeks after the season’s end.
“I think what’s really special about the encore season and with ‘Rent’ is that there’s not a sense of censorship that has to be done because with the summer season, we want to make it a family-friendly oriented thing where they can come to any of them. ... With ‘Rent’ it’s heavier, heavier issues dealing with homosexuality, with AIDS, with addiction, with death. And it’s also how people in New York really talk, so there’s a lot of foul language, but it all serves a purpose,” said Janisse. “So rather than having to edit it and tarnish the piece, it is left intact the way it’s supposed to be.”
Murray said, “I think one of the great reasons that we’re starting with ‘Rent’ is because it’s so well respected in the theater community so it does give people of Warsaw, the Wagon Wheel theater community, it gives them all a chance to see the other side of Broadway and hopefully a new perspective on what theater can be.”
The first time Janisse and Murray saw a production of “Rent” themselves it had a big impact on their lives.
Janisse said, “‘Rent’ is actually the reason I’m in musical theater. It’s the reason I’m at Warsaw right now. Freshman year I was in ‘Rent,’ I got cast in it. I wasn’t into musical theater and I got into the show just because I liked listening to the show. And I got into it and that got me into the school for musical theater and then I started doing musicals because of ‘Rent.’”
Murray grew up with the soundtrack first. He saw the movie when it was released in 2005 and then the tour.
“It definitely was the heaviest, most dramatic show I had listened to, to date,” he said. Before “Rent” he was listening to more “fluffy” stuff like “The Music Man” and “Guys & Dolls.”
“So ‘Rent’ was kind of eye-opening like, ‘Oh, these aren’t just news stories. People  talk about these real issues in theater, too,’” Murray said.
Even though many issues addressed in “Rent” have evolved since the 1990s – some states allow same-sex marriage, there are drugs to prolong the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS – the actors said the musical is still as relevant today as it was then.
“I think it is as relevant today as it was back then. Of course, things were more shocking back then so it really was an opening of doors for some topics, but we still have certain things that we deal with now,” Janisse said. “There are still states that don’t accept gay marriage. There are still people who have qualms about homosexuality in general. There are still people who don’t know about exactly what happens with AIDS and that it’s still a thing.”
He said what’s really reflective of that right now is the ALS ice bucket challenge. “Which I think is perfect timing for this show to come out because it’s about a disease that doesn’t get a lot of attention that is now coming forth through some form of entertainment, because the ice bucket challenge is a form of publicity and entertainment, but it shines light on something that is an issue just like ‘Rent’ does. It shines light on these problems that are still prevalent today,” he said.
Murray added, “And all of the problems, they aren’t necessarily specifically supposed to be about what they are. It’s also about the entire concept of how do you deal with things that are outside the norm and things that make you uncomfortable and how can you use those things for the education of the youth or the adults who are uncomfortable with that sort of stuff. And the message of ‘Rent’ isn’t about the AIDS, the disease, the prostitution or anything like that, it’s about how to make the most out of your life whatever it is.”
To see the complete 24-minute interview with Janisse and Murray, visit the free video section of the Times-Union website at www.timesuniononline.com
Tickets range from $15 to $34. Discounts are available for college students and seniors on designated performances. For more information or to purchase your tickets, visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org or call the box office at 574-267-8041.