Featuring such classics as “Seasons of Love” and “Take Me or Leave Me”, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” celebrates the grit of the underdog in ways other musicals dream of. Bite My Thumb Theatre are taking their rendition of “Rent” out on tour across March and April, so I caught up with Artistic Director Neil Knipe who chats here about his first impressions of the show, its lasting appeal, and why this rendition is well-worth seeing…
It’s been a good while since I last checked in with you and Bite My Thumb Theatre Company – how have you found the rocky road of the last few years and how does it feel to be getting back to a fresh tour?
We actually begun this process over 2 years ago, that’s when our auditions were. Two years! The show was originally all booked for September 2020. At various points, I honestly doubted if it would ever see a stage, so yes, it’s been a long hard road. A few cast members had to drop out due to other commitments, our entire creative team too. Yet maybe this delay has been for the best because I think we need a show like RENT now more than ever. A show about community, love, equality, screaming into the face of adversity. A show that, despite focusing on a tragedy, empowers and uplifts. A show that will raise our spirits in these dark times.
So following on from a varied back catalogue spanning Bouncers, Shakers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Little Shop of Horrors, what drew you to Jonathan Larson’s Rent as the next show for the company?
For 15 years we focused on plays, comedies, dramas and such. Little Shop was out first musical and I think we were thirsty for more. Although I love the depth of a play, where you fully immerse yourself in that process of exploring a character and the multiple meanings of a text, we wanted to return to that energy, excitement and spectacle that musical theatre brings so readily. Rent had been knocking around as an idea for a while, but after listening to the original cast recording one day in the car, I felt we just had to stage it – if only for that raw, powerful music alone. Also, this was a few years back of course, so although we were pre COVID, we were still firmly in Trump/Brexit times when intolerance and hate were on the rise. If anything it seemed essential to perform Rent as a response to that.
When did Rent first appear on your radar and what was your initial reaction to it at the time?
I didn’t like it. As producer, should I be admitting that? In my defence I was a young teenager, the show was brand new at the time and my experience of musical theatre was limited to Rodgers and Hammerstein. I was in a revue show and we sang a few numbers and I just didn’t get the lyrics, they seemed seemed repetitive and dull. It was just to radical for my closed mind. It wasn’t until my early 30’s that I actually watched the show and totally got it and released how electric those lyrics were, how touching the melodies were and how utterly important the show must have been for an entire community of people.
Rent has become such a force of nature on the musical theatre scene – for you, where do you think the continued affection for the show stems from?
I think it’s partly due to the fact it was a game changer, a show that reinvented what musical theatre could be. The previous generation had Hair which felt revolutionary, the current generation has Hamilton, which again has opened up musical theatre to a new audience – My generation had Rent. That was Larson’s intention and he succeeded spectacularly. Rent was the Hamilton of its day, with obsessive fans and queues down the block for tickets. Also, I think it’s a musical which people just connect to. Like Rocky Horror it’s about people who were seen as misfits at that time – be it an artistic community who wanted to live on their own terms or the LGBTQ+ community who were horrifically marginalised. Rent spoke to people on a personal level and brought LGBTQ+ issues to the foreground. Rent is for anyone who’s ever felt different. Finally, it’s such a beautiful and uplifting show.
A cruel question for some, but can I ask if there’s a particular song or moment which you’d name as a highlight for you?
Oh gosh, that is cruel, how do I pick? “Seasons of Love” was the break-out hit and it’s such an anthem you can see why – I have to hold myself back from jumping up on stage and joining in. We have a diva face off in “Take Me or Leave Me” which knocks your socks off and songs like “Will I”, “Goodbye Love” and “One Song Glory” are breath-takingly tragic yet beautiful. I’d have to say “La Vie Boheme” and “Rent” though. The former is such a glorious vibrant celebration of counter culture and rebellion and “Rent” is perhaps the greatest opener in musical theatre. A playful in-yer-face rock song that takes no prisoners. Moment wise, it’s the finale. Our cast all come together to sing the final song and I cry. Not because of the emotional climax of the show (although there is that too) but because I see this wonderful cast we are blessed with, together, singing, smiling at each other and the love these people have for each other is tangible – and I am so intensely proud of them all.
Would you say there’s a need to consider the impact of things like the recent Netflix hit Tick Tick Boom when approaching a Jonathan Larson work now?
Yes, possibly. I don’t think Tick Tick Boom itself has necessarily impacted on our production as the film came out as we were well into rehearsals and scenes had been set and the director’s vision was in full motion. However, I think Larson weighs heavy on everyone’s mind. With this being the big hit, the piece where Larson injected his heart and soul into every page and which he tragically never got to see become the mega success it has (due to his death before opening night) – it’s quite the responsibility to honour his legacy and present a show he would be proud to have his name on. It’s extremely powerful to know we are a tiny grain of sand in keeping his work alive and spreading his message of love, acceptance and the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.
What are you most looking forward to when it comes to bringing Bite My Thumb’s take on Rent to audiences?
I’m looking forward to an audience who currently live in a tough and uncertain world escaping from all of that for an evening and feeling the positivity and magic our cast are giving. To giving people that glorious feeling of adrenaline, a butterfly in their stomach when that rock music rings out and the cast blast out those awe inspiring vocals. Most importantly, to continuing to spread the message that hate is always foolish and love is always wise.
Hopefully, I’ve sold the show itself enough so far, so what I will say is …PLEASE SUPPORT LIVE PERFORMANCE. Be it theatre, music gigs, variety acts or stand up comedy. Get out and enjoy it. The live arts industry needs you so much right now after being devastated due to the pandemic. Your bottom on a seat makes a real difference and it’s greatly appreciated. Things are getting better but we all still need you. It would, of course, be an honour if our production of Rent was one of those events you chose to support.
So there you have it!
Bite My Thumb’s Rent tours between March 9th and April 16th, 2022 – you can find tickets, venues and dates here.