"Rent" Boys Return

by Padraic Maroney

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 4, 2009

In the 13 years since opening on Broadway, "Rent" has become engrained into pop culture. Dealing with issues like AIDS, the emerging gay identity and drug use amongst its 20-something characters, the show stayed relevant and spawned a large and devoted fan base.

Shortly before it closed last September after 5,124 performances, it was announced that two of its original leads -- Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal -- were recreating their roles on a national tour that makes it way through South Florida this week and next. (First Orlando through Sunday and then Miami.)

Back to Basics

"Rent" was the first audition that Pascal had ever gone on. Growing up the actor played music in a band, but never thought much about going into theater. It wasn't until his childhood friend (and future co-star) Idina Menzel told him about a part in the show -- the HIV-positive rocker Roger -- that he became interested.

"I was looking for sort of my next move in terms of, well... (It appeared that) this rock band that I had been with for so many years was not going to take off. That was obvious. (The question became) what else can I do?" recalled the Bronx native. "I found out through (Menzel) that she was doing this off-Broadway musical and they were having trouble casting one of the lead roles and it sounded like something I might find interesting."

Rapp at the time had already been experienced in both film and theater. As a child he was cast in the lead in the musical "The Little Prince and the Aviator," a quick failure, yet one that brought Rapp and his family, including his older brother Adam, from Illinois to New York for the child actor to pursue a career. (Adam was more of a late bloomer, but today is an acclaimed playwright and stage and film director.)

In 1987 at the age of 15 Anthony made his film debut in "Adventures in Babysitting" - which was directed by Chris Columbus, who came to direct the film version of "Rent" a decade later. Rapp also had featured roles in such films as "Dazed and Confused" and "Six Degrees of Separation." But for the 25-year-old actor the "Rent" audition, where he tried out for the role of the budding filmmaker Mark, offered an opportunity for him to get back into musical theater.

"It was just a normal audition through my agent. I knew who the director (Michael Grief) was because I had auditioned for him before and I liked his work very much. I was certainly happy to get in front of him and I was happy to get the chance to do a musical again," Rapp recalled.

But the process with which "Rent" found its way to Broadway was both thrilling and heartbreaking for both actors. While the huge success made the cast members overnight sensations, this was overshadowed by the untimely death of the show's author -- Jonathan Larson - on the eve of the show's first preview at the New York Theatre Workshop. Then early in the Broadway run, Rapp learned his mother was diagnosed with cancer, which he wrote about in the book "Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the musical Rent." To cope with this, he turned to the musical for support.

"In many ways I was thankful to have 'Rent' to help me work through everything that was happening to me, but those things were also exhausting. That kind of long illness and loss is really, really, really tremendously challenging for everyone involved," Rapp said. (His mother died in May, 1997.)

While Larson's death shook the cast to its core, it also brought the cast together in ways that were unusual for a Broadway show.

"It was painful," Pascal recalled, "but it galvanized us in a way that was apparent on stage every night. I think the cast that we are performing with now has a similar connection, but without the negative connotation."

Come Together (Again)

Though the actors have previously reprised their roles on both Broadway and in the film version, it was more than a decade since they had first played the roles. Both, though, feel that the passage of time has helped shape their performances for the current tour.

"There is no difference in the way I approach it," explained Pascal on the phone from a North Carolina tour stop. "But there are definitely differences in the actual performance given the fact that it's been many years since we started the show. I think definitely having a family informed my performance in a way that I didn't have the opportunity, obviously, the first time around."

It's a sentiment that Rapp echoes, "I think hopefully I am a better actor now. I am hopefully a better person, more awake, alive, responsible person and I think that might have seeped into different aspects of Mark."

The actors, who became friends during their initial Broadway run, reprised their roles in the summer of 2007 for a limited 10-week run. Because this return was so well received by audiences, the producers offered them the chance to take the show on the road once its Broadway run closed. It was chance both wanted to do, but for Pascal having two young sons played a deciding factor in his decision.

"The only difficulty was okay how was I going to deal with this with my family and how are we going to work that out. That was my only hesitation. Other than that I was very excited to have the opportunity to take the show on the road," Pascal said.

For his part, Rapp said they were a packaged deal and neither would have done the tour without the other. But with both signed on (along with original "Seasons of Love" soloist Gwen Stewart and members of the closing Broadway cast) some might think the pair be treated as "Rent" royalty once back in their signature roles. But that is the opposite of how either would want things to be.

"We are all telling the story together. I have a little more experience at doing that and I have a more knowledge of it, but you know that doesn't mean I'm treated any different," explained the Illinois bred Rapp. "This play in particular cannot survive if there is a feeling of any kind of separation between us. It rises and falls on the strength of the entirety of the ensemble creating a community together."

Rentheads, Reporters and Reprising Their Roles

Actors say they love the theater because they are able to get immediate feedback from the audience. The same goes for members of the audience who are able to meet the cast at the stage door after each performance. The show's highly dedicated fan base, known affectionately as Rentheads, is respectful for the most part according to Rapp. But because of the affection that some of the fans feel towards the actors can sometimes create awkward situations for the actors.

Pascal says that sometimes fans will see the show and meet the actors so many times that they go from just wanting an autograph to feeling like they have developed a relationship. For the most part it's not a problem, but can be difficult at times.

"It creates a bit of delusion going on in a lot of people's heads," Pascal said. "People have a hard time understanding that I don't have a few minutes to give them. I have a family, I have a life. I just gave them blood sweat and tears for three hours. I am happy to sign things for people and stand by when they take pictures and say hello. But if you are coming just to chitchat, I don't have time for just chitchat and, quite frankly, I don't want to chitchat because you're a stranger and I wouldn't just chitchat with any stranger on the street for no reason."

Rapp can't recall any problems with Rentheads, though recalls having an uncomfortable time recently while promoting the tour on a Cleveland morning show. The show had devoted a generous amount of time for a segment on "Rent," but when the discussion turned personal, the host asked each actor if they were in a relationship. After Pascal discussed his family, the host asked Rapp, a self-identified queer, if he had a girlfriend.

"She used that word. What flashed in my mind is if I correct her (and explain that he is mostly gay), it's going to become about me correcting her and a conversation about that. It was such a flashpoint thing that all I said was simply no," Rapp recalled.

"But it felt so strange to be asked that question because I am so out; I've been out all these years. To be asked with the use of that word is very strange. It's the most closeted I've felt in years and years."

Both actors are thankful for their roots with the show and acknowledge what they have gained by being a part of it.

"The easy and true and quick way answer is that it utterly transformed my life in every way. It came at a time when I was very much in need of work, but it became so much more than work," Rapp said about how the show changed his life.

"It has also afforded me opportunities to travel all over the world as I am doing now - traveling over America, England, and Tokyo with the show. I have gotten to meet incredible people all over the world form that. It has brought love and friendship into my life."

For Pascal, who is also an established recording artist with Larry Edoff, touring brings up an entirely different set of issues, whether it is in the show or promoting his latest CD "Blinding Light." That is, being separated from his family.

"I don't mind staying in hotels and I don't mind the travel, I just mind being away my family for such long stretches of time. There are worst situations to have - like not having a job," Pascal admits. "You do what you have to do in this business."

Rent continues through December 6 at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando. On December 8 it opens at the The Fillmore Miami Beach where it plays until December 13. For more information visit the current tour website.