Rent 20th anniversary: Original cast reflects on legacy at BroadwayCon
'How do you measure a year in the life?' At BroadwayCon, the original stars share lessons learned over two decades in this exclusive interview
On Jan. 26, 1996, a group of diverse actors from all walks of life stood in a line on stage and asked a question that would go on to define a generation: “How do you measure a year in a life?” The answer would come back to them over and over and over again as Jonathan Larson’s bohemian rock opera Rent, about starving East Village artists, AIDS, and living each moment as your last, became a Broadway sensation. The show spawned numerous domestic and international tours, hundreds of community performances, and won multiple awards over its nearly 12-year run. But perhaps more important, the show’s influence and inspiration have left a mark that very few works have been able to achieve.
Roughly 20 years to the day Rent gave its first game-changing performance, members of the original cast — Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi Marquez), Fredi Walker-Browne (Joanne Jefferson), Rodney Hicks (Paul & Others), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel Dumott Schunard), Aiko Nakasone (Alexi Darling), along with choreographer Marlies Yearby — reunited at the first ever BroadwayCon to talk about their experiences and reflect on the musical that changed their lives.
“I love it,” says Rubin-Vega, referring to the fans who come to her often dressed as her character, blue leggings and all. “It doesn’t matter if they kind of-sort of look like me. I remember thinking back in the day, ‘Well I guess I can die now!’ And then I was like, ‘Hell no, you have to dream a bigger dream now!’ But it really is the kind of thing that is a dream.”
“It’s reaffirming to hear it bounced back to you as an artist, period,” adds Yearby. “To make a difference to the world and in a small way, then to hear it come back to you from bodies that are 12, 13 years old and also people that are past our age… it’s just an incredible thing. It reaffirms you as an artist.”
EW’s exclusive interview followed a lengthy BroadwayCon panel moderated by Rapp and an autograph session which allowed lucky fans to meet the actors face to face. “They kept saying, every single one of them: thank you so much,” shares Nakasone. “Thank you so much for coming, thank you so much for this gift… I’m looking at some of them, and they’re younger. They were born after we left, after the entire show closed down. But I started to say ‘thank you’ because all of the fans have kept it alive.”
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For Heredia, who played Angel — the spirited, HIV-positive percussionist who is arguably the heart of the show — the accolades that have come with being a part of Rent are incomparable to the personal responses he’s received over the years.
“I find it humbling to be a part of something that’s a social movement,” he said. “That’s really what it was. It wasn’t a Broadway show: it was a complete social movement that changed society as we know it and theatre as we know it.” And although Heredia won a 1996 Tony Award for his performance, it pales in comparison to the real impact his character has had on fans.
“One girl walked up to me and told me she grew up in a very Christian community and she went to Christian school, and they were told that AIDS is God’s punishment,” he says.”And she said after she saw the film… to have someone say, ‘I saw your character and I understand everything I was taught was a lie,’ now that pales in comparison. That makes you feel humbled, because it’s a lot bigger than just being part of a great show. We were part of something really, really important.”
As Walker-Browne points out, that kind of response has inspired the cast to keep paying it forward, recognizing how important their time with the show was to so many people. “I did a show with [Tony Award winner] Donna McKechnie called Love, Loss and What I Wore, and A Chorus Line was my Rent,” says Walker-Browne. “I shared a dressing room with her and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you don’t know what you did to me.’ I told her that instead of everyone who thanks me for Rent, I’m thanking them.”
“It’s also physics, though,” Rapp adds when referencing how the show burst onto the scene at the right place and right time. “It’s like a vacuum. When you fill a vacuum, energy rushes out. It’s that. You almost didn’t know what was missing, but it was missing, and then when it was filled it makes anything else awesome.”
Aside from changing the way Broadway thought about music and choreography, and aside from bringing pertinent issues like AIDS and homelessness to the front lines every night, Rent inspired something that has become so celebrated today in the wake of so many successful Broadway shows: an emphasis on diversity.
“I feel like there’s no coincidence that this is 20 years later that Rent premiered, along with Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, and now we’re in a season of such great diversity and such great art,” says Hicks. “There is an artistic revolution happening. We went through the Disney period, but you have Hamilton and then you have, towards the end of [the current Broadway season], Shuffle Along. It just makes sense.”
While the cast learned many lessons from their time in Rent, ranging from how precious life is to how to perform on Broadway eight times a week, there are a few important messages that stand out. For Walker-Browne, it’s simply the fact that she’s alive.
“That’s all that ever matters once you do that show,” she says. “I’m still breathing, I’m still here, I woke up today. I have another chance to create, to be, but more than that, I am actually here. I’m here for all the people who can’t be here, and I’m going to talk for them and live, and never regret another second of anything because it’s all bulls–t. It’s all a load of crap. And if life is going to teach you anything, it better teach you that.”
Rapp references the strange circumstances that had been discussed in the panel, about how most of the cast almost didn’t do the show for various reasons. “You never know what will happen, of course, and we didn’t know anything, but we did it for the right reasons,” he says. “And the right reasons were simply because we wanted to tell the story, and then it was met with all that success. It’s sort of the opposite of so much of what is happening. I guarantee you that Lin-Manuel Miranda did not think, ‘I’m gonna make a huge Broadway smash hit out of Hamilton’s biography.’ He was moved to tell a story. They did it at the Public Theatre, and they were also paying it forward. There’s always the hope it’ll have more life, but that’s not why. It wasn’t meant to be a blockbuster. It was meant to be something personal and true. The rest of it just happened anyway, and I guess part of the life lesson is that it validates that purpose in the first place.”
For Yearby, as a choreographer, it all comes back to being authentic, “to really, truly be you. He [Larson] had a vision of how he heard the music, how he heard the story. And he was true to that, which allowed everyone in the room to be true to who they were in their bodies as that character, or as the role, for me as choreographer.”
While generations of people may have found their strength from “no day but today,” no one is more aware of how they’ve been affected by Larson’s message than the ones who performed his words for the first time.
“Full disclosure: I was afraid every day that I walked into the rehearsal room around these authentic souls,” Hicks admits in a candid moment of emotion. “Because my life at the time was anything but. I was living in such denial of self, such fear of self, and this piece was…I had to confront truth every single day, and it was the very thing that I was running away from.” He went on to talk about how after he left the original cast in 1997, “I found myself going back and standing by the sound board for many many years, just because I wanted to be with my friend, and also be with my family that I didn’t really at the time have the wherewithal to get to really know, because I was so afraid of myself. So going back to see the show all the time, just slipping in and out…it taught me how to be,” he revealed. “Because I listened to the words for the first time, and I wasn’t performing. And I learned about authentic truth. It took me personally about 17 years to come to get that.”
“If you’ve ever not known yourself, that feeling of not being afraid of who you really are and the truth of it — for everyone else to know that truth, it is such a scary thing,” says Nakasone. “It’s so frightening, but that’s lovely. It’s an amazing thing to find the courage to become who you really are meant to be.”
“There’s a quote — it takes courage to grow up to be who you really are — and I remember vividly coming into rehearsal and just being terrified because everyone was coming with such truth, and they were so beautiful and accepting as well,” says Hicks, looking around at the family he’s been a part of for the past 20 years. “And I don’t know were I would be today if it had not been for Rent.”