Centered around a group of HIV-stricken young artists living in a New York City tenement, the show is based on Puccini's La Bohème, a 100-year-old opera that shocked contemporary audiences with its reality-driven grit and grime. Rent, too, finds both pain and pleasure within the tight boho community it reflects. And just as Puccini's piece propelled its scenes with contemplative music, so does Rent. It's just louder -- and, fittingly, a part of the streets from which the characters come. "Each character has his vibe," says Joe Parker, guitarist in the touring production's onstage band. "There is a standard Broadway feel, with leitmotifs and things like that. But there's an R&B thing, a techno thing, a rock thing. The music relates to the show."
Parker, 28, is a native Clevelander (now living in New York) who toiled in area bands for years. He was a member of Rumor Has It, which snagged an opening gig for John Fogerty at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1998, its prize for winning a VH1 contest for unsigned bands. His former bandmate, Matt Murphy, is a Rent cast member, who sold the show's producers on Parker. Playing Cleveland bars also helped.
"I'm the fourth guitar player on this tour," Parker explains. "It's not that tough a show to play, but I think they were looking in the wrong places. They had guys who had classical backgrounds. I heard a story about the first guy, who literally didn't know how to turn an amplifier on. Another guy didn't want to use picks. He wanted to finger-pick everything. I came in there and applied a garage-band ethos to the whole thing, and it works fine."
Now in his second year with Rent, Parker's looking at career options. "I think I'm gonna call it a day with Rent [soon]," he says. "I've been doing it for such a long time. I want to give somebody else a shot to do it." He's working with Murphy on a new CD, and the pair hopes to expand the project. Rent, he says, certainly opened up his opportunities. "There are a lot of artists and performers out here who get offers for all sorts of things all the time," he says. "In all honesty, it's a real job. It's mainly about stability. I get to pay my college loans back. I get to eat."
He's itching for something new -- something that offers a little more artistic space than Rent does. "We have a little bit of free range," he says. "We have room to do our own thing. But I'm a suburban guitar-playing kid, not a sophisticated New York jazz kinda guy."