Cast members and creative team share memories of Jonathan Larson reflect on the show's 20th anniversary at BroadwayCon

By Jessica Derschowitz
January 22, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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Nearly 20 years to the day that Rent first stormed the stage and sparked a musical theater revolution, members of the original cast and creative team reunited on a different stage to celebrate the musical’s legacy and that of its late creator, Jonathan Larson.

The crowd in the main hall at the first-ever BroadwayCon roared on Friday night as the panelists took the stage to the opening chords of one of the musical’s most famous tunes, “Seasons of Love,” and over the course of the next hour and a half reflected on how they each came to be a part of the 1996 smash about struggling young artists in New York City’s East Village, which ran on Broadway for nearly 5,000 performances before closing in 2008.

Original cast member Anthony Rapp (Mark) moderated the talk, which included fellow cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi), Fredi Walker-Browne (Joanne), Wilson Jermane Heredia (Angel), Rodney Hicks, and Aiko Nakasone (both of whom played multiple ensemble roles). The show’s original casting director Bernard Telsey, choreographer Marlies Yearby, New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James Nicola, and Larson’s sister, Julie Larson McCollum, were also among the panelists.

What followed was an introspective, incredibly personal panel that included surprise appearances from other cast members (one via FaceTime), memories of first auditions, and thoughts on how Larson and the show changed all their lives.

Read on for some of the best moments from the measure of two decades of Rent.

The show’s beginnings

Rent begins with Mark’s “December 24th, 9 p.m., Eastern Standard Time…” but for Larson’s sister, Julie, it began with him playing songs for her over the phone while she was in Los Angeles and he lived in New York (“This was before the Internet, people,” Rapp joked).

“He felt the show was relevant to everything going on in the world, downtown, in the East Village, with the AIDS crisis. He was losing friends left and right,” she said.

Nicola, meanwhile, recounted how the New York Theatre Workshop had just moved to a new location in the East Village, and the board was seeking to produce work about their new neighborhood when Larson happened to ride by on his bike. “He sent over a script and a cassette tape with [Larson] on the piano singing the songs. There were some good ones and some not-so-good ones in that early version, but the good ones were remarkably good,” he recalled.

First auditions and role preparations

Rubin-Vega auditioned for Mimi with “Roxanne” by The Police, and Rapp sang R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” — which Rubin-Vega remembered hearing him sing from outside the door. Later in the panel, she also shared that she went to a strip club while doing research to play Mimi (and many other members of the cast went with her).

Walker-Browne said she sang “Joy to the World,” by Three Dog Night for her audition, and noted she took the role of Joanne in part because she and Rapp went to college together, and also because she lived in Brooklyn at the time, and the NYTW theater was downtown.

Doing Rent before it was Rent

A recurring theme through almost all the panelists’ revelations about their early involvement in Rent was that they almost didn’t do it. Telsey was offered Rent and another show at the same time and initially only wanted to cast the latter. Yearby, who came from the modern dance world, had just finished a show that “exhausted” her. And Heredia — who admitted he accidentally slept through his first audition because he worked an overnight job at a call center at the time — said he initially wasn’t interested in musical theater because he didn’t see himself “as a musical theater person,” but when they gave him a tape of songs that he listened to at work, “all of a sudden I got interested real fast. — there was something about it that spoke to me. … I heard this music, and I realized almost immediately that it was something reall, bigger than me, something that had never been heard before.”

“I found that everyone I spoke to, all the cast members, everyone was in some form of transition in their life when they took Rent … [we were] right where we were supposed to be,” Yearby said.

And while the music is known backwards and forwards by fans now, that wasn’t the case while trying to find a cast to fit its rock-centric score.

“Back then, nobody knew what Rent was. … we had to look under every rock to find these incredibly talented people,” said Telsey. But by the time it moved to Broadway and they did their first open call, he said, “it was like American Idol — thousands of people. And now there are thousands of rock operas and rock musicals.”

Real life ‘Life Support’

One of the other panelists on the stage was Cynthia O’Neal, who works Friends In Deed, a group that inspired the “Life Support” portions of Larson’s show, including the haunting song “Will I?”

O’Neal said that Larson attended meetings at Friends In Deed with friends who were HIV positive. “He was really there, really listening. The energy coming off him was so strong,” she recalled. Though he had invited her to speak with the cast as they were rehearsing at New York Theatre Workshop, she didn’t see the show itself until after Larson’s death.

“[Larson] didn’t tell me there was a support group in the show modeled on the group I lead. I mean, it was just staggering — Friends In Deed phrases, things we say every day, no day but today,” O’Neal said. “A man there at a meeting said, ‘I don’t have a problem about dying, but will I lose my dignity?’ And Jonathan had been in the room that night. So when [a Rent cast member] stepped out and started to sing, ‘Will I lose my dignity…’ that’s as moving a moment as I’ll ever have in my life.”

Hello from Maureen and Collins

Near the top of the panel, Rapp played a video from Idina Menzel (Maureen). “I just want to say hi, and I’m sorry I’m not here, I regret it so much,” she told the cast and crowd. “Twenty years ago this changed the course of our lives, and we want to pay tribute to Jonathan and just remind everyone of the theme of the show and just stay in the moment and live for today.”

Later, Rubin-Vega pulled out her phone and FaceTime’d Jesse L. Martin (Collins) from the stage, getting the audience to sing happy birthday to him.

“I can’t believe you called me, I’m so excited!” he said.

Larson’s legacy

Friday’s panel was a celebration of Larson as much as it was a celebration of Rent. Larson died on the eve of Rent’s first preview in 1996, at the age of 35, and the celebrations of the show’s success were mixed with the sadness that he was not able to see it.

“You’re seeing it with Hamilton now,” Rapp said. “Hamilton is everywhere, as it should be. Everything that’s happening with Hamilton happened with Rent, except Lin-Manuel [Miranda] is alive, and Jonathan wasn’t.”

“When we found out that our friend passed, we didn’t have time to really mourn or grieve,” Hicks added. “We were just on a rocket ship, and then the sadness turned into joy in one moment of, how do you figure a life? How do you measure a life? And it was joy.”

Julie Larson said while her brother didn’t get to see what Rent became, he knew it was something special. “Although my brother didn’t live to see the kind of success that Rent has become and what’s happened with musical theater as a result, he was supremely confident … and terrified at the same time. But that last night, when we had the invited dress rehearsal, he was immensely proud of each of you and felt whatever happened, he had done it.”

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