Rent gets real

As the pansexual, AIDS-inflected Broadway sensation becomes a gritty, hyperreal movie, three returning cast members talk about how the show’s messages of love, life, and liberty for all have only become more urgent

BY Michael Giltz

October 24 2005 12:00 AM ET

“East
Village. Rock opera. AIDS. It could be the ultimate Cheez
Whiz, or it could be something interesting,”
recalls Anthony Rapp of his first peek at a synopsis
of an unproduced stage musical called Rent. He
was standing in an obscure office in the New York
headquarters of the powerful ICM talent agency, but
after a good run on the New York stage and playing
teen roles in several films, including Dazed and
Confused
, he was about as far from the top of the heap
as an ICM client could get.

“It was
September of 1994. I was working at Starbucks—the
first time I’d had to take a survival job in
New York. There was a guy [at ICM] who got upgraded
from an assistant to an agent’s job. I saw the
Rent breakdowns on his desk. It was a
three-week workshop, and [gay stage director] Michael
Greif was directing it, and I knew who he was.” Rapp
talked his way into an audition.

Meanwhile,
would-be rock and roller Idina Menzel was between gigs as a
wedding singer when she heard about the show and thought it
sounded like fun. And the timing was perfect:
Rent was going to be workshopped in January and
February. There aren’t a lot of weddings in the dead
of winter. “I was just happy to be doing
theater,” says Menzel. “It was my first
professional [acting] job.” It turned out to be much
more. “That New Year’s Eve at the Four
Seasons in Philly was the last wedding gig I ever
did.”

Actor Wilson
Jermaine Heredia was not interested in auditioning for some
workshop production of a rock opera inspired by
Puccini’s La Bohème. “It was
downtown, it was only going to last a month, and I’d
just got medical insurance,” he recalls. “I
was working full-time as a dispatcher for a realty
company, midnight to 9 in the morning. They owned all
these buildings and had their own maintenance crew. If there
was a leak at 2 in the morning, I was the person
they’d call.” Sending out plumbers was a
secure gig. Singing and dancing in a musical about AIDS?
Heredia recalls thinking, You know what? I can’t
afford that.

But the power of
Rent won him over: “When I got the music and
the script, I got nervous because I loved the project
so much.” He auditioned and was offered the
pivotal role of Angel, a mischievous drag queen with
AIDS and a great sense of rhythm. But he dithered, still
worried about quitting his job. “My manager
called me up and was infuriated with me. He said,
‘Listen, are you a dispatcher? Or are you an
actor?” Heredia says.

That question
woke him up. And soon afterward, Rent woke up
Broadway and the world. Created by a long-struggling
writer-composer named Jonathan Larson, who wrote the
book, music, and lyrics, it brought onto the
mainstream stage the world of the lower east side in New
York City—a universe populated with homeless
people, drug addicts, aspiring performers, drag
queens, and would-be filmmakers living on the streets or
in dodgy lofts with no heat. In short, outcasts. But
outcasts who had found their own sense of family,
their own idea of home.

In
Larson’s vision, the La Bohème characters
were transformed into young New Yorkers, struggling
artists, gay and straight. Rapp played Mark, the
filmmaker and narrator whose ex-girlfriend, Maureen
(Menzel)—an amusing gloss on Laurie
Anderson–style performance artists—is now
dating Joanne, a smart, driven career woman. Mark
lives in an illegal sublet with Roger (Adam Pascal),
an HIV-positive rock musician and recovering addict
who falls hard for Mimi, the drug-addicted stripper who
lives downstairs. Mimi is also dating the landlord,
Benny (Taye Diggs), Mark’s and Roger’s
one-time friend turned real estate mogul. Meanwhile another
pal, computer hacker Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), meets
and falls for Angel, a sweet presence who finds his
true love just as the closing credits of his fabulous
life are beginning to play.

The
music—more than two hours of it—wove their
stories into Larson’s down-and-out tapestry,
which also included a chorus of homeless folks and an
HIV support group. Even as demos, songs like
“I’ll Cover You” (a heartbreaking
same-sex love song), “La Vie Bohème,” and
“Seasons of Love” marked a major talent,
redefining what a musical could be. Larson had turned
New York’s supposedly seamy side into a celebration
of life and love, and Rent turned New York on
its head, packing successively bigger theaters en
route to Broadway, a fistful of Tony Awards, and the
1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Rent was never
just a hit musical. Rent mattered. It amplified the urgent
desperation of the late ’80s and early ’90s,
when AIDS was rampant, no one seemed to care, and
people struggled to get by. It took place and was
first performed long before drugs like the protease
inhibitor cocktail would lull people into a false
sense of complacency about this plague. It put queers
and drug addicts and people with AIDS at the heart of a
big-hearted musical. This wasn’t Cheez Whiz:
Rent spoke to audiences worldwide with the
emotional appeal of, say, Les Misérables or The
Lion King, but it wasn’t a noble fantasy of long ago
or far away. This show celebrated the lives of the
very people audiences stepped over outside as they
made their way into Broadway venues.

Young people in
particular lined up around the block, often showing up
the night before, to be able to buy $20 tickets in the front
two rows, which were sold just hours before each
curtain.

Now a big-budget
film musical—due out nationwide November
23—Rent still matters, even if the
“Rentheads” who were teens when the show began
are now pushing 30, and the Broadway cast members who
re-create their roles in the film—Rapp, Menzel,
and Heredia along with Pascal, Martin, and
Diggs—needed a little movie magic to once again
embody their 20-something alter egos. “We had a
nutritionist working with us on the movie to keep us
healthy and make us look younger and a little
hungrier,” says Rapp. Adds Menzel with a laugh:
“Even back then, we were never that
young.”

The actors knew
they had to recapture the sense of desperation that
infused the show when it premiered. “It was all raw
[energy] and spontaneity,” says Menzel. Even
now, Rapp insists, “urgently” is the only
way to play these roles, because the stories Rent tells,
although set 16 years ago (from Christmas 1989 to late
1990), have lost none of their immediacy in an
America—and a world—where tolerance and
respect are still hard-won.

“We can
see that in the last election,” says Menzel, talking
about how important it is to take Rent’s
message to movie houses all over the country.
“We as New Yorkers—been there, done that. But
the rest of the world needs to see people of different
ethnicities, women loving women, men loving men. The
movie is still extremely relevant because a lot of
people still need to be educated.”

And after all,
movies have often turned to the recent past to comment on
the present: Think Shampoo (a 1975 film set seven
years earlier), The Deer Hunter (a 1978 film
largely set in 1968), or even Longtime
Companion
(a 1990 film that begins in 1981).
“It’s not going to feel like a dated
piece,” says Heredia. “It’s still
happening and we have to realize that. HIV is not
gone. There are casualties every single day.”

What will
separate Rent the movie from Rent the stage
show is the medium itself. Onstage Rent was
performed on a nearly bare stage, with some
scaffolding standing in for the grime of the East
Village, the sterility of a hospital, and the funkiness of a
downtown café. Filming the movie on location in
New York and San Francisco and on an elaborate backlot
in Los Angeles adds a verisimilitude that the
filmmakers hope will offer a different kind of power.

The cast felt it,
even craved it. Menzel showed up on the set even when
she wasn’t scheduled for that day. She went to
support Pascal when he was performing “One Song
Glory” late at night on a rooftop in downtown New
York. It was lit so beautifully and the city was such a
inspiring backdrop, Menzel says, “It just
seemed right.”

Rapp had the
wonderful and bizarre experience of shooting scenes just
blocks from where he used to live. “There was
something about being on Seventh Street between
[avenues] A and B at night with the big movie lights
and the camera on me,” says Rapp. “I lived
just the other side of Tompkins Square Park from where
we were. And I was singing this song Jonathan had
written with my voice in mind. That was the most out-of-body
experience where I thought, Oh, my fucking God, I
can’t believe this is happening.”

The translation
to film also adds intensity of some intimate moments,
says Heredia. Angel’s death from AIDS complications
was beautifully stylized onstage, at a time when the
harsh physical suffering of people with the disease
was more prevalent in queer New Yorkers’ lives and
more visible in the media. Now, when the brutality of
AIDS is largely glossed over, the movie drives home
the reality.

“The death
of Angel is not pretty. It’s a real hospital
scene—lesions and all,” says Heredia,
now 33 and recently divorced. “I have to quote Tupac.
I can’t do it verbatim, but he said that the only way
people react to anything is if you show them. Vietnam
only stopped because people saw it on television. So
we show it in the film. The only way anything is going
to get better is to put it in your face. It’s not
pretty, is it? It’s real.”

How well the
cast’s experience will translate to moviegoers
remains to be seen. The completed film was not made
available to The Advocate at press time, but it
is by all reports no carbon copy of the stage show.
Songs were cut to lower the running time, including
“Christmas Bells”; the steamy, Bob
Fosse–inspired “Contact”; and two more
Rapp says he’s not yet allowed to name. And the
production has been dogged by questions—whether
director Chris Columbus (of Home Alone and
Mrs. Doubtfire) can make Rent gritty
enough to match its subject and setting; whether the
actors are too old to reprise their roles.

Rapp is the first
to come to Columbus’s defense. He had his first
feature role in 1987’s Adventures in
Babysitting
, Columbus’s debut as a
director, and says he never doubted for a minute that 18
years of experience had prepared the filmmaker for
just this project. “Having worked with [Chris],
I knew he had more fire in him, a darker sensibility,
and edgier sense of humor than he’d shown in his
films,” Rapp says. “One of the things he
said in our meeting that was eye-opening to me was,
‘This is going to be the most important film I ever make.’"
“Chris’s movies are about
community and family,” says Heredia.
Rent is the same thing. It’s not about
AIDS, it’s not about homosexuality, it’s
not about homelessness—it’s about
family.”

As for casting
six of the eight original principal actors—only
Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi) and Fredi Walker (Joanne)
were replaced—Rapp says the movie’s cast
is so immersed in the roles that they readily tapped in once
again to the sadness and joy inextricably tied up in
Rent. And no one else shares these six
actors’ experience of the show’s dramatic
birth and its creator’s shocking death: Larson
died suddenly the night after the final off-Broadway
dress rehearsal—January 25, 1996.

“We
gathered together in the theater that day in shock and not
knowing what to do,” says Rapp, now 34 and in
the fourth year of a relationship. “We were
supposed to have a preview [performance] that night [with a
paying audience]. The decision came down pretty quick from
Michael and Jim [Nicola, the artistic director of the
New York Theatre Workshop] that we were going to do a
sing-through of the show because we didn’t want to
leave the theater silent and Jonathan’s family was
flying in.”

The cast and crew
invited friends and family to what was supposed to be a
sing-through with the cast seated at tables onstage.
“But by [the act 1 finale] ‘La Vie
Bohème,’ we were up and dancing,” Rapp
says. “Doing it that night brought home, more
than it had, that there was so much joy and life in
the piece, and there is also incredible loss and sorrow. And
both things are true, and both things are as fully
realized as the other. To me, part of what the story
is saying is that in the face of these circumstances
you can still live your life as fully as possible.

“Jonathan’s father, Al, said to me after that
performance, ‘This has got to be a hit.
You’ve got to make this a hit.'"

The ironies piled
up. Larson, on the cusp of a career-making success with
a musical that drew its fire from the tragic loss of so many
talented young people, had died of an untreated aortic
aneurysm that went undiagnosed after several visits to
the emergency room. If he’d had the medical
insurance Heredia gave up to be in the show, he might be
alive today. Rapp, the very queer show’s sole
out gay actor in a lead role, was playing the straight
narrator. And Rent became a money machine about
poor, struggling artists, starring once-struggling actors
who had to fight for what they considered a fair
shake.

“Here you
are, doing a show about art versus commerce, and we have
producers starting to lowball us on money and we have to
stand up for ourselves,” Menzel says, recalling
how the original cast fought for and won appropriate
salaries when the show transferred to Broadway. “It
was such a bittersweet experience for all of us. These
wonderful things were happening for our careers and
yet…Jonathan wasn’t there.”

He wasn’t
there when his work won the Pulitzer in April 1996 nor when
it opened on Broadway a few weeks later. He
wasn’t around when it won four Tony awards: one
for Best Musical, two for Larson’s book and songs,
and one for Heredia, the first Dominican actor to take
home the award. He wasn’t around for the
show’s largely sold-out national tour or its
numerous productions around the world. He wasn’t
around when Menzel and Diggs married in January 2003.
He won’t be around for the musical’s
4,000th Broadway performance in mid December.

And he
wasn’t around to help shepherd his creation from
stage to screen—a task that tempted A-list
directors including Martin Scorsese, Danny DeVito, and
Spike Lee.

By the end of the
millennium—referenced in “What You
Own,” one of the show’s rousing rock
numbers—the original cast had all moved on,
remembering Rent as a landmark moment in their lives
that had come and gone. Post-Rent, Rapp has
done You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on
Broadway, a national tour of Little Shop of Horrors,
and the film A Beautiful Mind, among other projects.
Menzel played the lead in Wicked and won a Tony
of her own. And Heredia left the business altogether,
at least temporarily. They all followed press reports
that Spike Lee was talking with celebrities like Justin
Timberlake, Brittany Murphy, and John Leguizamo about
starring in the Rent movie—just the sort
of people you’d expect to find in a glitzy film
of a hip Broadway show.

But Lee moved on,
Columbus stepped in, and stunt casting was out.
Columbus sought out the original performers. “I said,
‘Please tell this man I don’t need a
pity meeting,'” says Menzel, who quite reasonably
doesn’t much trust anyone from Hollywood. “I
literally said, ‘I’m really busy and
really tired. I understand if I’m too old. But I
don’t want my own time to be wasted.'" Columbus
had to work to track down Heredia, who had taken a
self-imposed one-year hiatus from acting and was tending
bar and working in a video store. Rapp, an old friend,
needed no persuading.

Guided by a
seemingly magical power only a director of Harry Potter
films could wield, the movie went before cameras in
early 2005 with much of the Broadway cast in place,
right up to the final shot.

“I got the
last shot of the movie,” says Rapp. “It was
just a little pickup shot of me riding my bike through
the backlot of Warner Bros. in L.A. and singing,
‘We’re hungry and frozen.’” He
laughs.

“I knew it
was the last shot [to be filmed]. I’m ready;
let’s do it. But as soon as they called it a
wrap, I kind of broke down a little. I didn’t
try to hold it in. I didn’t know how I was going to
feel, but it was very overwhelming. Maybe I’m a
sappy, sentimental guy in some ways, but I went right
up to Chris and said, ‘Thank you.’

“I mean, I
really needed this to happen in my life. I needed to be a
part of this again and see it through to the end and
have it be forever. It’s one of the greatest
gifts I could ever imagine to be given that
opportunity.”

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