On January 25, 1996, a new musical by an unknown writer who had tragically died the night before, opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, and the landscape of theater changed forever.
Written and created by Jonathan Larson, Rent would soon transfer to Broadway and develop a cult following that was almost unheard of in the theater community at the time. Hordes of people would wait in line overnight to nab tickets and people would go back 2, 5, even 10 times or more, because it made such an impact on their lives.
Rent tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, the musical follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, its message was clear: to measure a life with the only thing that truly matters—love.
The show starred a collection of unknowns —although all have gone on to fame in the years since. Names like Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Daphne Ruben-Vega, Taye Diggs, and a young singer by the name of Idina Menzel, who left a career as a wedding singer to try out for the musical.
Rent would go on to win the Tony Award that year and Larson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his deeply, touching story.
Back then, Aaron Harrington was just in middle school, growing up in Durham, N.C. His only recollection of Rent was seeing a video for “Seasons of Love” on MTV. In fact, he knew very little of Broadway or theater or acting of any sort.
That changed when he got to college and was looking for an extracurricular activity to round out his day. Harrington found a small theater near his school and tried out for a production.
“I did it originally because I was bored and I wanted some excitement,” he says. “I didn’t think I was good enough for the big time, but thought I was good enough to do in a small role. It’s always been a small dream to act, but never big enough to make that big a commitment to.”
He graduated from Shaw University, and enjoyed his first production so much, that he wanted to pursue it more.
“I went to school for marketing and moved to New Jersey to stay with my family and relocate for a PR/marketing job in New York,” Harrington says. “It turned out, they gave away the position and I didn’t have a job. Many months later, a friend sent me audition information for Rent at a community theater and thought I would be good for the role, so I went and did it.”
at the National Theatre
June 20 – 25, 2017
Details and tickets
He landed the part of Tom Collins and started doing research on the show, eventually finding a bootleg of the original Broadway show on YouTube.
“I loved the music. I think it’s something that grabs everyone’s attention—just how different it is,” he says. “Plus, how human the experience is in this show. It truly can represent anyone you know, and there are different aspects of the show that pull out different personalities of people I know.”
More specifically, Harrington says he was drawn to the character of Tom Collins because it reminded him of himself.
“It just seemed like such a cool thing because I could see myself through the actions of Tom, I recognized his spirit,” he says. “That’s what first drew me to the part and the show.”
A year later, he tried out for the 20th anniversary national touring version of Rent and booked Tom Collins again. The tour is stopping at the National for a week of shows beginning June 20.
Over his time with the show, Harrington has heard many tales from the original “Rent Heads” who slept on the sidewalk to get tickets and entered the ticket lottery almost daily. He says he enjoys meeting them and hearing their stories from back in the day.
“We get a large group of people who have seen the show before and talk about the feeling that they had when they first saw it with the original cast,” Harrington says. “They still get the same feelings. But my favorite are the people who never saw the show and I like seeing what draws them to it.”
Growing up as one of nine children, Harrington says he’s used to being in the same type of space with the same group of people, and he compares touring to his upbringing.
“It’s really cool being with a group of likeminded people who love the show as much as you do. They are all very sweet and caring people,” he says. “I’ve always been a people watcher and I really enjoy being with these people and going to different cities. I hadn’t traveled off the East Coast before this, and now I’ve been to Japan, California and all these other great places.”
Harrington’s commitment to the show ends soon, but he thinks he recently got an agent and is looking forward to seeing where he can take his career. Not that he’s ready to turn his back on the show.
“Rent means so much to me and I would go with it for as long as I could,” he says. “I don’t know what my future holds yet, but I’m so grateful that I have had this opportunity.”