By George Basler

Once every decade or so, a Broadway show opens and becomes a headline-grabbing news event and cultural landmark as well as a major hit.

Oklahoma! fit the bill when it opened at the height of World War II. So did Hair, which captured the hippie, flower power era of the late 1960s, and Hamilton with its multicultural cast and new take on the Founding Fathers.

Equally newsworthy was Rent when it opened in 1996, winning a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Musical while drawing rabid fans (known as “RENT heads”), who were so fixated on the show that they were willing to line up hours in advance for discounted $20 rush tickets.

One of those “RENT-heads” was Tommy Iafrate, an associate professor and director of the music theater program at Binghamton University. “I was obsessed with Rent,” he said, estimating he saw the original production 25 times as a teenager and young adult.

Thus, he’s “thrilled” to be co-directing an all-student production of Rent that opens Friday (April 21) and runs for two weekends in BU’s Watters Theater. His co-director is Brandon Wright, an assistant professor of acting and directing at BU.

One reason for Iafrate’s passionate enthusiasm for the musical is how it resonated from him as a young gay man. “It’s an important piece of queer theater history that shined a light on gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans characters that hadn’t been done before,” he said in a recent interview. Its themes of the acceptance of outsiders and the importance of community are as relevant today as when the musical first opened, he added.

Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old who wrote the music, lyrics and book, loosely based Rent on the 1896 Puccini opera La Boheme. The story, set in the then-working class East Village of New York City, follows a multi-ethnic group of artists and their friends as they navigate issues of poverty, drug addiction and sexuality. They also refuse to pay rent to protest the gentrification of their neighborhood. Thus, the musical’s title.

Hovering over the action is the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. Instead of giving way to fear and despair, the characters form a supportive community to cope with trauma and loss.

Larson’s score includes rock, pop, gospel and traditional Broadway-style-songs. His vision was to merge rock music with the sound of a large Broadway pit orchestra, Iafrate said.

Unfortunately, Larson died before completely realizing this vision. His death, which occurred the day before Rent‘s Off-Broadway premiere, adds another poignant note to the musical.

The Binghamton University production features a diverse cast of 17 actors. The show is very much an ensemble piece with each cast member getting a solo number while also uniting with other actors for emotional harmonies.

The student actors say Rent is meaningful for them even though the show debuted before they were born.

The musical’s message of living each moment to the fullest, expressed in the theme “No Day but Today,” is one that “will resonate forever,” said Alondra Schuck, a 21-year-old senior, who is playing Mimi. She called the part “my dream role.”

Nat Fox, who is playing Joanne, can relate to the characters, who are living through the AIDS epidemic, because she and her classmates had to live through COVIC pandemic in their senior year of high school. “The message of ‘No Day but Today’ is to stay in the present and appreciate what we have now,” the 20-year-old junior said.

Abner Leung, who is playing Angel, said Larson turned the 1990s East Village into “a magical place.” The character of Angel, a young drag queen who has AIDS, is a fantastic one to play, the 21-year-old senior added, noting: “I feel like I’ve known the character for so long.”

One of his challenges in co-directing Rent is not falling into the trap of trying to replicate the Broadway production, Iafrate said. He applauded Wright, his co-director, for his invaluable work in coming up with new ideas for staging and choreography.

The BU production will feature a live rock orchestra accompanying the actors. Melissa Yanchak, a lecturer in the theater department, is the music director.

IF YOU GO: Rent will be performed the weekends of April 21 and April 28 in Binghamton University’s Watters Theater. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. NOTE: There is no performance on Saturday, April 29. Tickets at $10 and $20 are available at (click on upcoming events) or by calling the Anderson Center box office at 607-777-2787.