This January, Fox aired "Rent: Live." Originally, the network intended to live-broadcast the entire Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, featuring a star-studded cast.
However, the actor who played lead character Roger Davis (Brennin Hunt) broke his leg during rehearsal the night before the show was set to be broadcast. So the dress rehearsal was aired instead, with only the last portion live, Hunt appearing on stage in a wheelchair. The show still went on.
More than two decades since it premiered Off-Broadway, "Rent" still is regularly produced. Though playwright Jonathan Larson died the night before the show's opening in 1996, his legacy lives on with the play's conversations on HIV/AIDS, gentrification, poverty and homelessness.
"Rent," inspired by the Puccini opera "La Boheme," tells the story of a group of poor young artists in New York City in the early 1990s. Now, the musical is on its extended Broadway 20th anniversary tour that kicked off in 2016, and it finally has a date in the Charleston area. It will run for two nights on Oct. 15 and 16 at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Coleman Cummings, the 24-year-old actor who plays Roger Davis, didn't experience the height of the AIDS epidemic, in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the syndrome was a top killer of United States adults. But director Michael Greif did, and the tour's creative team worked on the original production of "Rent," Cummings says.
"Our director was a huge help on having a real personal connection (to HIV/AIDS)," he says. "He had friends that died and family he lost. We also watched documentaries to learn more detail about what life was like then."
According to the global health policy nonprofit the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 37.9 million people are living with HIV and tens of millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes since the beginning of the epidemic, which was peaking when "Rent" hit the stage and sought to destigmatize the condition.
It wasn't just affecting gay men and drug addicts, but also straight men, straight and gay women and those who contracted it by blood. "Rent" helped reveal that to the masses.
"A lot of the stigma around HIV dovetails with negative beliefs about other marginalized groups such as the LGBT community, people who use drugs, and racial/ethnic minorities," says Jelani Kerr, a researcher on sexual health and HIV/AIDS disparities who graduated from the University of South Carolina. "It is extremely difficult to remedy HIV-related stigma without addressing these as well. There is still more work to do on this front."
Kerr says that while there haven't been any studies about the show's impact on stigma specifically, there is evidence that the arts and the media can help.
"Having outlets where historically marginalized people can be humanized helps demystify HIV and the people who live with it," Kerr says. "This is especially true if we like and identify with the characters. In its own way, 'Rent' may have helped to curb social distance around HIV and influenced attitudes and beliefs among its vast audience."
He says that "Rent" also spread awareness about HIV/AIDS and helped bring it to the forefront of public health. Although preventions and treatments for HIV/AIDS are now widespread and effective, the condition still is not fully understood by many, Kerr says.
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"The stigma around HIV can be worse than the actual disease for a lot of people," he says. "Plays like 'Rent' may help to break down some of that stigma. When that happens we are more likely to see more support and improvements in the quality of life for people affected by HIV."
HIV/AIDS is just one important topic of the show, and it's far from the only conversation piece, Cummings says. There is laughter, there is heartbreak, there is death, there is love. It's a slice of life that anyone can connect with.
"It’s a really moving production, and I think there are themes in the show that relate to anyone and everyone, because it’s just about the human experience," he says.