Presenting meaningful social issues on stage before a live audience is something New Light Theatre has sought to do from its inception in 2018.
New Light Theatre’s adaptation of RENT is set to entertain and educate audiences new and old
By Jim Miller
Photos by Lena Mucchetti
In the world of pop culture, sometimes art earns a second life.
Take Kate Bush’s title track from her 1985 hit album Hounds of Love, which was fervently rediscovered this year by new, younger audiences after it was featured in the fourth season of Stranger Things. The show’s spotlight on the song propelled the decades-old album to the top of the Alternative charts, resulting in Bush’s first Billboard No. 1 album.
That type of pop-culture rediscovery, albeit on a smaller scale, is what the Delaware-based New Light Theatre hopes to generate when it brings the ‘90s rock musical RENT back to the stage in late August.
“It’s certainly beloved by people based on a nostalgia factor as well as others who have discovered it later,” says New Light co-founder and Artistic Director Lena Mucchetti. “I think there is a celebration of ‘otherness’ in RENT. If you don’t feel that you fit in with the mainstream in a time when things feel so divided, [then] the idea of celebrating community and finding your family — and celebrating counter-culture like RENT does — really speaks to people if they find it at the right point of their lives.”
When RENT first hit the stage in the 1996, it refreshed the concept of the Broadway musical, presenting American audiences with timely and relevant social issues in a dynamic and provocative way not seen since the hippie, counter-culture rock epic Hair, which debuted in 1967.
In addition to the critical acclaim and long-running success it achieved, RENT also broke new ground as the first Broadway rock musical to deal with the topic of AIDS as well as other previously unexplored LGBTQ themes.
More than 25 years later, Mucchetti and her New Light Theatre cast and crew believe that reviving RENT offers an opportunity to revisit those themes and view them in a contemporary light — amid a political climate that has presented challenges to the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve come across it in rehearsals, saying, ‘Wow, this was so long ago, and we haven’t moved the needle as much as we wish we had on these types of issues or attitudes,’ which is unfortunate that we have to keep trying,” says Mucchetti. “Maybe meaningful storytelling will move that [needle] for somebody who gets to witness it.”
Presenting meaningful social issues on stage before a live audience is something that New Light Theatre has sought to do from its inception. In the summer of 2018, Mucchetti and her husband, Tom, teamed up with longtime theater friend and actor Newton Buchanan to produce the rock musical Next to Normal, working with both professional and student actors to explore themes revolving around mental illness.
That first production ended up raising enough money for the theater to make a financial donation to The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, which focuses on finding new treatments for a variety of brain disorders. The experience was both gratifying and illuminating for the three co-founders of New Light.
As Mucchetti recalls, “We kind of looked at each other and we were like, ‘we just found the mission statement… we could do this moving forward.’ And [New Light] has been worth all of the headaches that come with running a theater company — that we weren’t sure we wanted to take on before — because it took on this deeper meaning and this new energy.”
Over the last few years, all New Light productions have followed a similar path. For example, in 2020 its Othello partnered with the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and with last year’s production of Citizen: An American Lyric, they found an ally in the Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow.
Appropriately, this month’s presentation of RENT has a partner in AIDS Delaware.
“We’ve got 3,000 to 4,000 Delawareans living with HIV AIDS, so in that way RENT is still relevant,” Mucchetti says. “But, also at the core of the show there is the celebration of life in the face of something scary.”
With RENT, as with the last few productions, the showrunners invited a representative from the partner organization to educate the cast, Mucchetti says. They have discussed ideas like how to portray roles respectfully and truthfully; how to be better advocates in the community; and, in this case, what does it mean to be living with HIV AIDS?
“Hopefully, it’s not just a night of entertainment, but it’s also walking away learning something and feeling a little more for the people in your community,” Mucchetti says.
And for those still feeling isolated and/or disenfranchised due to COVID or other recent strife, there may be something even more available.
“Whether you were a teenager in the ‘90s or an infant, and then found it later as a teenager in the 2000s,” Mucchetti adds, “there is something in there that is going to speak to you and comfort you about the idea that you can always find your community, you can find your family, you can find people who will celebrate and accept you and push you to live life with love.”
— From Aug. 19-28, New Light Theatre brings RENT to the E.O. Bull Center Mainstage in West Chester. For tickets and more info, visit NewLightTheatre.com