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Rent gets real

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

"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 Boheme. "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 Boheme 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 Boheme," 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 Miserables 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 cafe. 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 Boheme,' 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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Michael Giltz