13,148,730 minutes: How do you measure 25 years of impact? When Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking production Rent held its first performance at the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) on January 25, 1996, no one knew that this new rock musical would sail through to Broadway, become a film, and go on to inspire a generation of theater. While Rent has become one of the most beloved musicals in theater history, Larson would never get the chance to see audiences around the world experience it: He died from an aortic dissection the night before it opened Off-Broadway.
Even in the midst of tragedy, Rent pushed forward to win a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Rent, based on Puccini’s 19th-century opera La Bohème, highlighted strong messages of poverty during the AIDS epidemic in New York City. It boasted a diverse cast and highlighted loving relationships between same-sex couples.
To commemorate Rent’s milestone (also to be celebrated at the NYTW’s Annual Gala), Broadway Direct spoke with original cast member Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi) and the film’s Joanne, Tracie Thoms, about starring in the historic musical, and the legacy Rent left behind.
Daphne, you were cast as Mimi in Rent 25 years ago. Before Jonathan Larson passed away, he sent you a postcard that said he knew you were Mimi when you auditioned. Tell me what that meant for you.
Daphne Rubin-Vega: It was surreal to come from an unrecognized place — a person who had been struggling to be seen — and then suddenly emerge with all eyes on me. That breakneck speed in which all of that shifted was beautiful, exciting, and at times painful. It could really mess with your head. To suddenly be perceived as an ingenue, when I had never really seen an ingenue who looked like me on stage, was a dream come true. I felt this incredible responsibility, but at times also felt like a mistake had been made.
DR-V: Growing up as a Latina with a Black Latina mother and a white father, and a Jewish American stepdad, I was used to being in spaces that were truly, truly multiracial. We all know that whiteness is the norm and whiteness was always the norm on Broadway. And I feel at the time there was an agenda to keep it that way. Rent is where I found my people. With this musical, suddenly there was space for a story that I could help tell.
Tracie, your journey to Rent took a little longer. You auditioned multiple times over the course of eight years before you finally landed the role as Joanne in the film, and then in the final stretch of the show on Broadway. Why was being part of this show so important to you?
Tracie Thoms: For the first time, I saw a version of myself and my chosen family on stage. I grew up around artists. My father worked at Maryland Public Television when I was little and then he moved on to work for PBS, and my mom was a social worker. We always had the most interesting people coming through our house. I grew up going to plays and spending time in theater camp, and in many cases, that’s not the norm for women of color. Seeing this community of people on stage for the first time who reflected the community of people that I knew personally was so important to me. Also, the story of love and loss and acceptance and art versus commerce and all those conversations that I had in my life — I had never seen on stage before. When I first saw Rent in 1997, I knew immediately I had to be a part of this work by any means.
Daphne, you’ve seen talented women such as Rosario Dawson and Tinashe step into role of Mimi. When you watch them perform a role that you originated, does it make you feel a sense of accomplishment?
DR-V: I’ve seen Rosario, Tinashe, and many more — like, dozens and dozens of other people take on Mimi. I saw a performance of Mimi in Japan that blew my mind. And Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Mimi was the icing on the cake. Before I even became a mother, I felt a bit of that maternal impulse, which is when you create something, you nurture it, and then you’ve got to let it go. There’s no value at all in trying to keep something in a place where it cannot grow. There were some Mimis whose choices I felt were not the choices I would ever make, but there was always that desire to just let it be. Over time I was able to celebrate other people making the choices that they made as Mimi. At the end of the day, I am so proud of the Black and Brown women who have taken on this role. They get to represent, because at this point, just being on the stage as a woman of color is huge. That’s even more important to me.
Tracie, having played Joanne both on stage and on screen, I’m assuming you connected with her character personally. In what ways are you similar, and in what ways are you and Joanne polar opposites?
TT: I’ll just start with the obvious: Joanne is an out lesbian, and I’m not. I just happen to be a heterosexual woman. When I played Joanne, I always wanted to really represent the LGBTQ community well. I took it very seriously. Just because I’m around queer people doesn’t mean that I understand everything about them, so I stayed open to criticism. I’m actually a part of this community because they always embraced me, and I’m so grateful for that. Therefore, I wanted to respect them with every ounce of my being and I asked the questions and remained open to being corrected when I was wrong. I also wanted to do my part as an ally and tell the story of love and lead with the love of Joanne and Maureen in a way that I was unafraid to do. But Joanne’s type-A personality, the way she’s kind of straight and narrow and kind of anal and kind of a little OCD, those things I very much relate to. I’m very much a type-A person. I play a lot of these. I play a lot of detectives, lawyers, therapists, and things like that. They’re very type-A characters. That’s just a part of my personality, where I could spend 30 minutes straightening a picture. And people are like, “Tracie, it’s straight.” If I focus on it, I’m focused on it for a long time.
Let’s talk about the chemistry you had with your fellow Rent cast members. The musical, in part, is so moving because of how you all connected with one another on stage, and you, Tracie, in the film. How were you both able to get to that place?
DR-V: There was a chemistry, but we genuinely loved each other. There was no pretending. I mean, yeah, we were acting, but we really loved each other. I think that as a whole cast, I was in love with every one of them, particularly Adam [Pascal, who played Mimi’s love interest Roger]. We were crazy about each other. I know that the show reflected the genuine attraction that we had toward each other. You can’t bottle that s–t up. I think that it’s good to point out the unspoken, elusive, ethereal quality of love, actually bouncing off the stage. Yes, there was this crazy crush I had on Adam, the gratitude for being in a show that actually spoke to me, and the traumatic explosion of Jonathan [Larson] dying. There were a lot of different elements that forged that connection.
TT: We’re out there every night, eight shows a week, bonding on stage. So many people think that actors are masters of deception, but that’s not the truth. In reality, actors are masters of truth. Our job is simple: Find the truth and tell it, and that’s what’s going to resonate with the audience. The audience can tell if you’re lying. In order to get to the truth, we have to be vulnerable and we have to open or heart and soul to each other and trust each other. Just knowing that someone is in the trenches with you, will actually give you a lot of that trust to begin with. By the time I joined Rent on Broadway, they all knew that I had done the movie and they knew my story. They knew that I had tried to audition for this show for eight years, and kept auditioning and auditioning and auditioning then to land this role. They knew that I was very dedicated to telling this particular story, so they trusted me with that. They just innately trusted me to come in and step in for Merle Dandridge, who had previously played the role of Joanne Jefferson.
Did you know at the time you were in it that Rent would have this lasting influence and go on to change a generation of musical theater?
TT: When I saw it on Broadway, I sat in my seat after it was over and could not move. I was just weeping. I’m not necessarily an overly emotional person. My friends have called me ice queen, and Logic Tracie. I’m very by-the-numbers. For me to have that experience, and for the story to touch me in that way, really moved me. I mean, I’m sensitive, but I’m not like, “Oh, my God!” I’m not that person. So I knew that if it had this effect on me, that it would affect the world in the same way. No one had ever seen anything like it. No one had ever seen anything that energetic, that visceral, that current. It’s never been done before in that way, maybe, since Hair. But Hair was such an esoteric experience. That show is more like a fever dream. But Rent is like, No, this is what’s happening now. These kids can’t pay the rent, they’re broke and they’re starving and they’ve chosen to live their lives on their terms, but they’re dying.
DR-V: I can’t really honestly say that I had any idea that it would at that time, but I knew in some ways that it would change things. And now, 25 years later, I see the impact is long and wide.
What are you looking forward to the most with the anniversary celebrations?
TT: It’s funny, because every now and then, I forget I was even in Rent because I was such a fan first. I was such a Rent-head when I was studying at Juilliard. I look forward to being a fan all over again.
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