NEW YORK – When “Rent” debuted on Broadway in 1996, Gwen Stewart was there. When the curtain came down on its final performance last year, she came back to be there, too.

So when producers decided to launch a national tour studded with original veterans, it made sense for Stewart to pack her bags and be there again.

“I used to say, ‘Oh my God, this show is so hard I’d never travel with it.’ Yet here I am 13 years later,” Stewart, now in her late 40s, says with a smile. “I’m just hoping these old bones will serve me well on the road. We’ll have to see.”

Stewart, who had several small roles in the show and became known as the lead vocalist for the signature song “Seasons of Love,” joins the show’s two male leads Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp for the eight-month “Rent, The Broadway Tour.”

It’s a reunion that Rapp says he couldn’t turn down. Though his stage credits include “Precious Sons,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and the revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” little compares to the show he originally joined while working at a Starbucks.

“I had quite a few years of experience before doing ‘Rent’ and I’ve had some really good experiences since, but it’s by far the most fulfilling one I’ve ever had,” he says.

The musical, based on Giacomo Puccini’s classic 1896 opera “La Boheme,” tells the story of struggling young artists in New York’s East Village. The show’s book, music and lyrics were created by Jonathan Larson, who died shortly after “Rent” began its life off-Broadway.

“Rent” played its final, tearful performance in New York on Sept. 7, 2008, after 5,124 performances, the seventh longest running show in Broadway history. It helped launch the careers of Rapp, Pascal and Stewart, as well as Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin, and netted four Tony Awards. A film, a DVD and CD are all available.

“Here’s why it works: It’s ‘La Boheme,”‘ says producer Jeffrey Seller. “The story of young bohemians who move to the city to pursue their artistic dreams, to pursue that bohemian, romantic notion – it worked in 1896. It worked in 1996. And it works now.”

While tours of the musical have crisscrossed the country almost continuously since late 1996, the current version will be the first with three of the originators.

“We always do a good job when we tour ‘Rent.’ However, having the opportunity to have these Broadway veterans go out is unique unto itself,” says Seller. “I can’t reproduce Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, but I can get them to go on tour.”

The current tour, which kicked off Tuesday in Cleveland and ends in August in upstate New York – winds through cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Dallas. The timing, all involved say, is right.

“Among the many things that people have shared with us about their experience of the show is that it’s brought them inspiration and comfort at times of trouble,” Rapp says. “And, hopefully, that’s among the things we can accomplish, too, as we go out into the country.”

Both Rapp and Stewart, who helped teach a generation that there are 525,600 minutes in a year, insist they aren’t sick of singing the show’s songs, including “Today 4 U,” “I’ll Cover You” and “Life Support.”

“This may sound stupid, but it’s like spending time with one of my best friends,” says Rapp. “That’s what it feels like to be in this world. It feels familiar and full of love and light and heartbreak – all of that I think is encapsulated in this piece.”

Director Michael Greif says when “Rent” first started touring in 1996, producers were fearful that some cities might not support the themes of the show: AIDS, injustice, impoverishment. He’s not worried now.

“There are no such things as red states and blue states anymore. I think everyone will embrace the show,” he says. “As a country, we’ve matured and we’ve faced up to a lot of things and we’re currently facing up to so many things.”

For her part, Stewart says she’s happy that the next generation will continue to get to hear the show’s message, even if it’s not on Broadway.

“It used to make me a little angry when people would say, ‘”Rent” is so dated! It’s an ’80s show’ or, ‘It’s a ’90s show,”‘ she says.

“I say to them: When homelessness, drug abuse, discrimination against homosexuals, when people are afraid to do what their heart speaks to them – when all of those problems are solved, then ‘Rent’ will be dated.”

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