The groundbreaking Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, a re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Bohème” and set in New York City’s gritty East Village at a time when the AIDS epidemic was wiping out whole communities in the ‘90s, is the latest live event to be airing on Fox. From writer/composer Jonathan Larson, who died before he ever got to see the show hit the Broadway stage, the story of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams also has an inspiring message of how hope and friendship can get you through the darkest times.
During small roundtable interviews at a press day to promote this 360-degree musical experience, shooting at Fox Studios and airing live on January 27th, cast members Tinashe (“Mimi”), Brennin Hunt (“Roger”), Jordan Fisher (“Mark”), Vanessa Hudgens (“Maureen”), Kiersey Clemons (“Joanne”), Brandon Victor Dixon (“Tom Collins”), Mario (“Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin III”) and Valentina (“Angel”) talked about how familiar they were with Rent prior to signing on, whether they’re pulling from any previous performances for their own, how they identify with their characters, working together as a cast, favorite moments, biggest challenges, how having a live audience will change things, and whether they might be in tears once the performance is over.
Question: How well did you know Rent before this?
TINASHE: I was familiar. The music is just so classic and timeless that it’s hard to not be familiar with at least some of it. I’d seen it a few times – the movie, as well as a college production of it. But I truly didn’t get into it until the rehearsal process of it, and got to know it on a more intimate level.
KIERSEY CLEMONS: I first saw it when I was 14, and we sang “Seasons of Love” in our recital. I think that’s a lot of people’s introduction to it. I loved it. I just loved everyone’s spirit in the show and how, despite everything they were struggling with, I wanted to be a part of their family.
BRENNIN HUNT: My best friend growing up, Randy Sanders, is a die-hard Rent-head fan. I used to make fun of him, actually. He would drive to school, every day, with his windows down, blaring “Seasons of Love,” while everybody else was listening to Tupac, or whatever. We played in bands together, growing up. A few years later, we were in New York City, doing a show and he was like, “Let’s go to Rent. I’m gonna show you why I’m obsessed.” I was like, “Okay, fair enough.” So, he took me and, at the end of the show, I was blown away. After that night, I became a Rent-head, and I was a huge fan of the role of Roger.
VANESSA HUDGENS: When I did [the show previously, as Mimi], Nicole Scherzinger played Maureen, and I remember just being so blown away by her performance and thinking, “That is a hell of a part!” I wasn’t ready yet, but one day, I knew I’d play Maureen, and that day has arrived. It’s so exciting. I love my character so much. She’s exciting. She’s larger than life. She loves being the center of attention. She’s a performance artist, which I feel is a very unique expression of art, to begin with. I have so much more respect for performance artists because it’s a terrifying thing. “Over the Moon” was terrifying for me, in the beginning, but the more that I do it, the more exciting and fun and thrilling it’s becoming. I just love the character so much, and it’s so fun to bring her to life, in my own right.
MARIO: My mom and my family were all music lovers, and my mom knew the show. I was never a Rent-head. I never got into the meat of the actual play, musical, or movie, but “Seasons of Love” is a song that we’ve heard, over the years, whether it be shopping at the mall, or wherever the case might be. But now, I’m able to add a storyline and a lifestyle to the song. It wasn’t until after my first audition that I actually went and studied the play, the show and my character, and I understood how I related to him. Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, in a poverty stricken area, my mom was a heroin addict for a very long time, and a lot of my family members. At 15 years old, we moved away from the city, and then came back, a year later. Starting my foundation and working with kids of substance abusing parents, I wanted to see a better environment for kids who grew up like I did, so I related to that part of Benny, somewhere deep down inside of his heart, past his evil and his persistence. That’s what gave me the confidence that I could pull off this role, not having any theater experience. All of that brought me closer to the play. There’s always something to discover, and I’m discovering a lot about myself, as a person and as an actor. The song asks, “How do you measure your life in a year?,” and it’s by living in the moment. Not by half, but by being all the way in the moment.
JORDAN FISHER: That’s why I love the finale. It’s literally just a bunch of people standing there. It’s my favorite finale of any Broadway musical because it’s the cast that you’ve just seen work their butts off for the last two and a half hours, standing there and singing their faces off, and saying the same thing, over and over again. “There’s only us. There’s only this. No day but today.” That’s the entire point of the show. You’re seeing them surrounded by one another, loving one another, and it’s really the foundation of all of this community and compassion. Humanity is founded on compassion. Whether or not we practice it is neither here nor there, but those that do and choose to make that the root of their life and how they relate to one another, find their lives happier, regardless of the trying times of the late ‘80s or the ‘90s, in Alphabet City, where people were dropping left and right because of a disease that we didn’t know how to deal with. Compassion, a sense of community, and family is what keeps people going through trying times. That spans across millennia. That’s how people got through it. The battle of Sparta was 300 against how many tens of thousands of people, but they were brothers that leaned on each other and loved each other. That’s how this country was founded, and how we freed ourselves from England. That’s how we get through.
Do you feel like you’re pulling from any performances that you’ve seen, for your version?
TINASHE: A little bit. It’s just a process, looking at all of the different performances in the past and taking away from those what are my favorite parts of their performances, and trying to apply those to what I’m doing, and then, also just making it my own. It’s a combination of finding that balance.
HUNT: [When I saw Rent], it turned out that Will Chase was playing Roger, at the time, and my first acting job, ever, in 2015, was Nashville, where I was in scenes with Will Chase. I was like, “It’s funny, how the universe works.” So, when I was up for this role, I was out doing my second callback in New York City and I reconnected with Will. He took me to dinner and I asked him questions. I said, “What should I expect, going into my audition?,” and he gave me the best advice. He said, “I know you’re a fan of the show, and I know you’re a fan of things that I did, or that Adam [Pascal] did. But just go in and be you, as much as possible, because nobody’s gonna be you better than you, in this role.” So, there are parts of Adam’s phrasing or things that he did that I’m gonna use pieces of, and there are things that Will did, with his acting side of things, that I’m gonna use pieces of, but then I’m gonna see what comes out, in my world. It’s just a little bit of everything, mixed with what I do.
CLEMONS: I’m being encouraged by (original Rent director) Michael [Greif] to do my own thing, but I’m obviously inspired by Fredi [Walker] and [Tracie Thoms], and the things that they brought to Joanne. For me, they are Joanne.