In 1996, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical RENT opened on Broadway and became a phenomenon. This week, the national tour returns to the Durham Performing Arts Center, opening the hearts and minds of a new generation of theatergoers and performers.
“Nowadays we’re calling it a period piece,” says Aiyana Smash. “But I think that the subject matter of love and of acceptance and of strength in a family and community is something that will never get old.”
A re-imagining of Puccini’s opera LA BOHÉME, RENT follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven New York artists struggling to follow their dreams amidst heartbreak and sickness.
Smash, who plays Mimi on the national tour, wasn’t even born when RENT first opened on Broadway. In fact, at 20-years-old, RENT marks her Broadway debut, which is something she says she certainly doesn’t take for granted.
“I did not expect to get booked right out of school, just because all our teachers were telling us about the process and all these other things that you have to do to pay your dues before you even think about getting the job of this caliber,” she says. “The more that we meet different people who have already done the show and we meet some of the fans, the more I realize how much it means to people, and I realize how much of a privilege and an honor it is to be in the show and to specifically play Mimi.”
Smash studied up on recordings and videos of her Mimi predecessors, including Daphne Ruben Vega, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Rosario Dawson. She says each of those performances helped her get to know the character and ultimately make the role her own.
“I had to try and dissect Mimi by reading the script and looking at these different portrayals and trying to figure out how I, Aiyana, personally can relate to her, and how I would react to certain situations that Mimi is put into.”
“So, I am Mimi, but at the same time, I’m still kind of being myself a little bit and that adds my personal touch.”
Smash has been on tour with RENT for five months and says portraying the character of Mimi has made her not only a stronger performer, but a stronger person.
“I think she just really taught me how to love others even when you are going through something that is tearing you apart inside,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s not about you, it’s about the people that you love.”
Larson died the night before RENT opened in previews off-Broadway. Smash says she is grateful to be part of his legacy and hopes the show’s underlying message of “no day but today” sticks with audiences long after the final bows.
“I really hope that they take that home with them and take home the fact that time is precious and life is precious and you have to love the people that you do love as much as you can before that time runs out.”