'Rent' Is Coming Back To New York In A Uniquely Reimagined Form

A one-night staging of Jonathan Larson's beloved musical will feature a full cast of deaf performers using ASL.
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More than 28 years ― or 14,716,800 minutes ― after it first premiered on Broadway, “Rent” is returning to the New York stage in a uniquely reimagined form.

Next week, Lincoln Center will host a one-night staging of the musical, performed by a full cast of deaf performers from the New York theater group Deaf Broadway using American Sign Language.

HuffPost has a sneak peek of the April 1 production of “Rent,” which can be viewed below. In it, the Deaf Broadway cast, which includes “Only Murders in the Building” actor James Caverly in the lead role of Mark Cohen, performs the musical’s signature showstopper, “Seasons of Love.”

The “Seasons of Love” video is directed by Jules Dameron and Skyler Knutzen.

When “Rent” premiered on Broadway in 1996, it redefined the status quo for musical theater. Composer Jonathan Larson gave Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème,” a provocative, forward-thinking update by transplanting the action from Paris to New York City and setting it against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sadly, Larson himself never got to witness the success of “Rent.” He died on Jan. 25, 1996, at age 35, one day before “Rent” had its off-Broadway premiere. The show went on to become an era-defining smash, running for a staggering 5,123 performances and winning several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Many members of the original cast, including actors Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, continue to enjoy impressive stage and screen careers.

Garrett Zuercher, who is Deaf Broadway’s artistic director, caught his first performance of “Rent” in 1998, when he was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. As a young gay man who also happened to be deaf, he found himself “so engrossed and enthralled” by the show’s emphasis on “young people just trying to navigate life,” even though he was unable to hear the music.

“One big thing about ‘Rent’ is that ― in this world that Jonathan Larson created ― if you’re different, it’s OK,” he told HuffPost. “These people, these characters, love and support each other. They celebrate who they are, and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”

The Deaf Broadway cast of "Rent," which plays New York's Lincoln Center April 1.
The Deaf Broadway cast of "Rent," which plays New York's Lincoln Center April 1.
Lawrence Sumulong

The Deaf Broadway production finally gave Zuercher a chance to stage “Rent” on his own terms and with accessibility for deaf audiences in mind. Sonically, the show uses the original 1996 cast recording, though Zuercher said “the lines come alive in brand new ways” when interpreted through ASL.

“We have kept the music and voices you know and love and just layered them with our own visual world, culture and language, making the tapestry that is ‘Rent’ that much more deep and powerful,” Zuercher said.

Deaf Broadway was co-founded by Zuercher, Caverly, Kim Hale and Miriam Rochford during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 in honor of the late composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. The group’s premiere productions were virtual stagings of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” both of which have since been performed at Lincoln Center.

Zuercher is hopeful that his production of “Rent” will live on beyond its one-night staging. As for Deaf Broadway as a whole, he said, “We are actively building a vibrant, more rich pool of experienced deaf actors, dancers and artists from which the professional theater industry can choose. I just hope they’re paying attention.”

“We’re proving that deaf people can lead,” he continued. “We’re proving the rest of the industry wrong. We’re showing them that deaf people can come together and make a damn good show on our own. That they don’t need to hold our hands. If we fall, we fall. But that’s how we learn. That’s how we grow.”

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