Grant McGowen always knew that he wanted to get around to it. The producing artistic director of Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theater lists Rent as one of his favorite shows. He knocks off a bucket list item with a special concert version of the musical for the holidays on Dec. 23 at Variety Playhouse.
McGowen’s love of Jonathan Larson’s celebrated, Tony Award-winning show, chronicling the life of young bohemian artists in New York’s Lower East Side, goes back to high school. A self-described musical theater nerd who identifies as queer, McGowen was inspired at a young age by the diversity of Rent’s story.
“It’s one of the first musicals I ever heard back (then),” McGowen says. “It was powerful. There is something about the angst and rebellion of it and the inclusivity of all the characters in it, the love and connection they have with each other and the family they’ve built, that really inspired me at a young age.”
Rent playwright Jonathan Larson passed away at the age of 35 on the day of the show’s first Off-Broadway preview performance. Another favorite musical of McGowen’s is Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!, an autobiographical show about a composer in New York questioning his decision to be in the arts.
A strong version by director Lin-Manuel Miranda starring Andrew Garfield is currently available on Netflix.
“That show is one of the reasons I decided to follow my dream and pursue theater, even though I was told, like many who go into the arts, that I’d never make any money and shouldn’t do it,” McGowan says.
“I said, ‘This is what I want to do and I don’t care if I don’t make any money at it,’” he adds. “The story of Larson resonates with me a lot. I stay connected to him although he is not with us.”
Atlanta’s ‘Rent’ Concert
Besides directing, McGowen stars as Roger in the concert show. The character is a struggling musician who is HIV-positive and embarks on a relationship with stripper Mimi.
Though the actor is mostly known for his film and theater work these days, he has a musical theater background and was eager to return to a juicy role.
“There are some emotional aspects to the character of Roger,” McGowen says. “He is longing for love and a connection and is afraid to let go into that.”
Other cast members include Luna Searles, runner up on NBC’s “The Voice,” local performer Kevin Harry and singer/songwriter Hannah Zale, the front woman of the band Pussywillows.
It’s easy to see why Rent has such an appeal to LGBTQ audiences, McGowen says.
“The representation of characters and the diversity in the cast – it’s like it should be,” he says. “They are nuanced and are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer. There are people of color with different upbringings.”
“And for Roger and Mark and Mimi and Maureen, they have chosen their family,” McGowen continues. “There is a reason why they aren’t picking up the phone and are screening their calls They are met with judgment. They are choosing power and a life of their own, not being victims.”
Close to Home
For a lot of LGBTQ people, the holidays can be tough. For a long time, McGowen looked forward to when the season was over. This year, though, he didn’t want to feed into that negativity.
“I wanted to do something positive,” McGowen says. “For people who don’t want to watch A Christmas Carol or listen to that message and want something alternative and cathartic, I hope we can offer that.”
“I like the idea of being able to do this as a sing along,” he adds. “I have always wanted to see Rent when it was more immersive.”
Local all-transgender band Exquisite Gender performs before the concert. The company’s version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2019 featured them, and their set includes some numbers from that musical. The other opening act is vocalist and songwriter Prisca, a self-described “cinematic pop artist who is showing all of her colors.”
Proceeds from Rent in Concert go to help unhoused people in Atlanta.
Rent in Concert stages at Variety Playhouse on Dec. 23, 8 p.m. Visit Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre online. Stay with Project Q for more holigay happenings on local stages in the coming days.