When the musical “Rent” debuted in New York in 1996, it put things on stage that had never been on stage before.
So says Kelsee Sweigard, who plays the character Maureen in the touring company arriving in Tacoma for two shows at the Pantages Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It depicted people living with AIDS, people in same-sex relationships (without making them the butt of a joke or the object of scandal), and a rapidly gentrifying East Village where artists and homeless people were finding themselves squeezed out by developers and rising rents. Does that last part sound familiar?
That “Rent” still resonates with audiences doesn’t surprise Sweigard, who says cast members regularly are approached at the stage door by people who saw the show 20 years ago and are now bringing their kids to see it.
She spoke to KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco as the tour was preparing to leave Vancouver, B.C., for performances in Bellingham and Tacoma. You can hear the conversation above.
In 1996, the height of the AIDS epidemic was still fresh in the national consciousness. That year, the federal government reported fewer new AIDS diagnoses for the first time since the start of the epidemic. There were advancements in treatment, too.
Today, HIV – while still serious – is manageable, and talk of a cure seems more practical than wishful. Still, some 36.9 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV/AIDS, including about 1.8 million children.
Sweigard says audiences perceive the AIDS storylines in "Rent" differently, depending on who they are.
“It might depend on the audience member specifically, and what they’ve lived through,” she said. “I was born in the 90s, so I remember growing up hearing about this thing, but I didn’t watch it happen.”
But those who did watch it happen say the show changed their life – or at least their view of HIV and AIDS – and Sweigard says they’re now bringing their kids to see the show, and learn.
Sweigard’s character, Maureen, is a performance artist who spends much of the show protesting the closure of a building and lot in the East Village where a tent city has sprung up.
“These homeless people in New York City have found a home of their own, and they can’t even have that anymore,” she said.
If there’s a recurring theme in "Rent," it’s appreciating the moment you’re in, rather than regretting the past or worrying too much about the future.
“There’s a big theme in the show: We only have now, we only have this. Tomorrow’s not promised,” Sweigard said. “The last lyric of the show that we all get to sing as a company is ‘No day but today.’”
And she says she hopes audiences take that to heart, and love and cherish the people around them.
"Rent" is on stage at Tacoma Arts Live’s Pantages Theater, Sept. 24 and 25.