The musical Rent is based on La Bohème, self-described Rentheads like to remind you, as though invoking that far-off opera will justify an affection for a musical in which hipsters in Harry Potter scarves earnestly belt out some of the most unintentionally hilarious lyrics in musical history. I quote, from a soundtrack that is still indelibly seared in my memory 12 years after my own Rent phrase ended: "We're not gonna pay/last year's rent/this year's rent/next year's rent!/We're not gonna pay rent!/Rent, rent, rent, rent, rent!"
The show's ardent earnestness makes it easy to parody—look no further than Team America's brilliant "Everyone has AIDS" sendup. The cult reception of the show continues to this day, in part because, well, everybody had AIDS. The show was the first Broadway musical to tackle the subject; further pathos was lent by the death of the show's writer, Jonathan Larson, the night before its premiere. It helped, too, that the cast was as meticulously multiracial as the cover of a high school Spanish textbook—the show offered a little something for everyone. And for many fans of the original cast, what it offered was Anthony Rapp, the weirdly attractive nerd who predicted the appeal of Seth Cohen by almost a decade.
Along with a few other original cast members, Rapp is in town this week reprising his role as Mark Cohen. "It's sort of like revisiting a younger version of myself, in a way," he says on the phone from Seattle. "I'd like to say that different colors have come through, by virtue of the fact that I'm older and a little bit wiser, but I'm not trying to do anything tremendously different."
Rapp's presence in town on the Rent tour proved a boon to one local company: Portland Playhouse has enlisted Rapp to perform a one-night-only staged reading of Bingo with the Indians, a play written by Rapp's brother Adam, himself a Pulitzer-nominated playwright.
"The play is about an off-off Broadway theater company that is so desperate they go to extreme lengths to raise money," Rapp explains. "This is one of Adam's funnier plays, but it's certainly a darker humor. It's a little raunchy. One of the things I really admire about my brother's work is that he writes about extremes, but it's always rooted in human truth. He's not just shocking to shock, he's really investigating why people go to the extremes they do."
"I read Bingo for the first time two months ago, laughing so hard I thought I was dying," Portland Playhouse's Brian Weaver tells me. "I finished it, turned back to page one, and read it again. After that I knew we would do the show in Portland. The last two months has been about convincing our board of directors that this is a good idea. I saw Rent was coming through town so I Facebooked Anthony and asked him if he would do a reading of his brother's play. He said sure.
"I love that [Bingo] is beautiful and dirty." Weaver continues. "That some people love it and die laughing, and others hate it and think it is poorly written. There's magic, shit, fucking, and longing—what more do you want out of an evening of theater?"
"It was a fun opportunity to help a young theater company that's trying to get their work out there—it was just a nice synergy," Rapp concludes. "I really love Portland, and I'm excited to see a little bit of the theater scene there."