This post is part of my 10 week retrospective looking back at a specific trip from each year of the 2010s. Read more about the series here. Today I’m talking about my January 2010 trip to Toronto.
I love spontaneous adventures, but there is something to be said about a trip with a quest, a mission, a purpose.
Likely I would have visited Toronto at some point in my life (and indeed I returned again in 2013, and had a short layover on my flight home Dublin in 2018), but my first visit to Toronto was in January 2010. My first travels of the new decade. The first time I’d visit the largest city in Canada. The first time I’d travelled somewhere in January (although Toronto in January is still cold, this was no tropical getaway).
And more importantly my first trip with a quest.
I went to Toronto with a friend and we went for one reason only. The musical Rent was having a national final Broadway tour with some of the original cast members (Anthony Rapp as Mark, Adam Pascal as Roger and Gwen Stewart in the Ensemble). Being huge fans of Rent (a.k.a Rentheads) my friend and I decided to go to Toronto to see this show (which we’d seen other touring productions of) in the only Canadian stop the tour had.
We were not there for the C.N. Tower. Or to try to spot Drake. Or anything else. Of course we did other things than see Rent. We were there for 6 days. We did go up to the C.N. Tower. We stayed downtown at a hotel for cheap, because I was working for the parent company and got an insane rate of $50/night (no longer working for that company, but I do miss the cheap hotel deals I could get). We went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Casa Loma, the Ontario Science Center. We went into the TV museum at the Canadian Broadcast Corporations tower and saw Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk (classic iconography in Canadian kids TV). We navigated the TTC. We wandered through Dundas Square.
But those weren’t the reasons we went to Toronto in the cold month of January 2010. It was all Rent. We had purchased tickets, got seats at the front of the balcony. Watched our favourite musical with some of the original cast. Bawled. Had goosebumps though the show.
I’ve wanted to talk about Rent on my musical theatre podcast, what it’s meant to me, how I fell in love with it after watching a cast performance of “Seasons of Love” on the Rosie O’Donnell Show as an angsty teen. Talk about the triumphs of the show, the devastating loss of its creator Jonathan Larson (who collapsed during the show’s first off-Broadway preview, and soon passed away from an undiagnosed genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome). How I obsessed over Rent after seeing this musical and listened to nothing but its Original Broadway Cast Recording for 6 months straight. Nothing else just Rent.
But I can’t start talking about Rent without crying, even though I understand its criticisms and why people don’t love this musical. It’s a show that is the product of a person who is no longer with us. And I have other musicals that I may see as being technically better and more cohesive (honestly my favourite musical list is a probably a ten-way tie), but Rent just holds a special place in my heart and will always be there. I’ve gotten to see some of the original cast in other shows, but getting to see even a fraction of the original Broadway cast of Rent was amazing. We stood in line at the stage door after the show and got autographs. I’m not an autograph person, not obsessed with meeting celebrities, but this was something we had to do. I probably sounded like a blubbering fool, but it was worth it.
But backtracking a bit before that show friend and I started talking to the lady sitting behind us in the theatre. She asked us if we were going to try for the lottery. And we never thought of that. Musicals (most commonly big productions on Broadway in New York, the West End in London, and some big national tours) have what is called the lottery and it all started with Rent. The story of Rent is a retelling of the Puccini Opera La Boheme, but set in late 1980’s New York with the HIV/Aids crisis replacing the plague of consumption (tuberculosis) that was deadly in the La Boheme’s 19th century Paris. Rent has strong themes of friendship, love, loss, art, and living like “No Day But Today.”
Producers of Rent realized that people who wanted or even should see the show were probably not always able to afford the $100+ tickets for this show. During its time Rent had the same kind of buzz that Hamilton has now. It was a hot ticket to see. A rock opera like no other. So a lottery was started. Before the show you could line up, put your name in a draw and win the chance to buy greatly reduced tickets for $20 for front row seats.
Nowadays shows have all sorts of lotteries, and some you can enter by just downloading an app and filling out a form. In Toronto they did the lottery tickets old school. My friend and I queued with other Rentheads, freezing cold, singing songs from the show, talking about the characters, our favourite moments, why we loved Rent.
And we didn’t win. Such is life. The experience was so positive, and there were some back of the balcony tickets left, at a pretty good rate, so of course we bought some because why would we turn down a chance to see Rent again? That’s a rhetorical question; we woudn’t.
On the last day we thought we’d try for the lottery again. Our flight wasn’t until later in the afternoon and we’d have enough time to get to the airport if we won. And again we stood in line, in the cold, excitement building, talking to people. An usher from the theatre came out and excitedly announced they were going to draw the lottery winners. And they called name after name and we saw people jump up and down and hug and cry and then they said a blur of syllables.
My friend’s name. Omigod they said my friend’s name. They didn’t pronounce her last name correctly, which is why it took us a second to realize what was happening.
We Fucking Won The Lottery!
Now you might say whatever, but this was like the best thing that could ever happen, at least for huge Rentheads like us. It’s like going to a Comic Con and getting to ask Robert Downey Jr. a question at a Marvel Panel when you’re obsessed with Marvel and have loved every Iron Man movie ever made and every Iron Man appearance in the Marvel Universe. Or you know pick an analogy for your life. Meeting your favourite musician/sportsperson, etc.
When a lottery winner is chosen they are usually given up to two tickets. They have to be purchased in cash right away. As it was just my friend and I on this trip we both got to see Rent again by winning the lottery.
And when I say front row seats I mean front row. They literally had two fronts of folding chairs in front of the regular seats (which probably went for $175 or more easy). And my friend and I got front and center tickets.
This isn’t to say I regret the previous viewings we’d seen of Rent. They were all great, but that lottery win was something else entirely. I could see details in the set and costumes that I couldn’t before. In musicals the acting and singing is often large and exaggerated, to make sure the people in the back of the theatre can tell what’s happening in the show. But up close I could see choreography and facial expressions I couldn’t before.
Of course theatre is live and an ever changing art form. Had we won the lottery before we would have seen the same, yet a totally different show. I’m sure it would have been amazing, but nothing was like that experience. Winning the lottery (or I guess more technically being friends with a lottery winner) and getting to see Rent is one of my favourite experiences in theatre and in travel. When I think back on my life, and moments of pure joy this one is in the top 5 for sure.
On the plane home I had a notepad and tried to scribble down everything I could remember from the show. Trying to preserve it in my mind. I couldn’t think of everything then, and I can’t find that notepad now, but I do remember that feeling. That wonderful joyous feeling when my friends name was called, and the excitement sitting in those front row seats watching a show we’ve loved for years in the best way possible.
January 23, 2010 was the day we won that lottery. I love Rent, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to see it again live because I know nothing could ever top that feeling. That’s unfair perhaps, and I’ll likely see Rent again at some point in the future (there was a national tour that came to Edmonton a few months ago). Until then I’ll always fondly remember my time in Toronto when we went on a quest to see Rent once, and ended up seeing it three times.