On September 7th, one of the gay community’s most beloved Broadway shows ends its run in New York City. RENT is wrapping up after 12 years and 5000 performances on the great white way, and people are grabbing tickets fast in order to experience one last Season of Love. You don’t have to plan a trip to New York however, as the touring production of RENT hits the Jubilee Auditorium for five performances only, May 23rd to 25th.
Created by Jonathan Larson and inspired by the opera La Bohème, RENT tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, in the thriving days of the Bohemian East Village and under the shadow of AIDS. The Broadway version has featured stars like Drew Lachey, Joey Fatone, Neil Patrick Harris, Melanie Brown, and Jai Rodriguez. The touring production features South African Idol winner and World Idol fourth runner up Heinz Winckler as Roger Davis, and American Idol Season 4, 7th place runner up Anwar Robinson as Tom Collins. We caught up with them during a tour stop in Atlanta Georgia and asked how the tour has been affected by the announcement of Broadway’s closing, and the release of the 2005 film version.
“One of my interviews was under the impression that this is the last time you can ever see RENT, which isn’t entirely true. It is leaving Broadway but there is already a tour being planned for January of next year. So I think there will always be a place to see RENT, it just won’t be on Broadway anymore,” said Winckler. Robinson added his own thoughts.
“The tour just does what it does based on the fact that there are people that do not have the opportunity to see a Broadway show, or who have seen the movie and would like to see it live closer to where they are. I think next year’s tour will be spectacular because it will be a farewell tour after the Broadway Company has closed. I think the tour next year will be greatly affected by those things. For what we know about this tour, most people have planned to come to see this show before the news came out that Broadway was closing. I think in the last few weeks that may be the case but our tour ends before the Broadway show ends.”
“There are a lot of people that come to our show that have only seen the movie, and are huge fans of it. Some people after the show love the stage version more than the movie, other people like both for different reasons,” continued Heinz, “It is cool to hear that kind of feedback. People seem to react a lot more powerfully to the live show because the sound and experience is so much bigger. What I did find was that a lot of people were happy they saw the movie because it helped them understand the story better when they saw the stage production, which is very fast paced.”
The tour went through an intensive month-long rehearsal process in New York before embarking on the 9-month tour, which started in October and wraps June 29th. Both men took advantage of the opportunity to see the Broadway show, and both took things from it, said Winckler.
“We saw it twice: Once with [original cast members] Adam (Pascal) and Anthony (Rapp) being there for their Broadway return. We saw them do the show as well as a different guy in the role of Roger. It was cool to see two different interpretations of the role and try and find my own one in between.”
“I really didn’t borrow anything from the people I saw play it. I have an awesome respect for them, because Marcus Paul James has been with the RENT family since 2004. I was awestruck by what he does with the Collins character. When I heard he was going to be playing it, I had to go see it, and that is when I realized that the emotional weight wasn’t supposed to be played out, and that Collin’s had taken a piece of Angel with him. That is when I realized the story is a lot more than meets the eye,” added Robinson.
Many of Idol’s past contestants have moved on to Broadway opportunities, including Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and Tamyra Gray. We asked about this trend, but both performers stated that it was not an interest in performing in musicals, but RENT itself that brought them to this tour.
“It is not the fact that it’s a musical, because I didn’t plan to go in this direction. This role happens to be part of a musical that I care about very much because it has affected the lives of many of my friends from seeing it. Since I didn’t have any professional acting experience before, I didn’t think I was going to do them because I felt there were more qualified people, but this is a Rock Opera,” said Robinson. “If there was any play that I would be in, it had to be this one, and if there was any role I would play it would have to be Tom Collins. This opportunity makes the absence from home and family worth it.”
Winckler had several reasons why he wanted to be part of the tour. “For me it is a specific thing about what appeals to me about RENT. I went from Idol to a specific pop genre with three albums that I released and the shows that I did were straight up pop, which was my style. Going into a Rock Opera, the music and style of singing for me, I could more easily see myself filling that role than a more classic Broadway type of role. On the one hand was the experience of doing something totally different, and secondly getting to tour the states, see another country, experience other people and build up a fanbase. Thirdly I want to get a foot in the door in the market here and pursue my own career after this.”
Robinson also went to some of his fellow AI alumni for support. Tamyra Gray plays Mimi in the Broadway version, Frenchie Davis performed the solo for Seasons of Love for four years, and when RENT appeared in Calgary in 2004 Constantine Maroulis portrayed Roger.
“Knowing that they had all been part of it, was an added bonus. I talked to Constantine a couple of times, and he wanted me to have a good time on tour and was proud that I get to be part of the RENT family and legacy. Tamyra really loves being part of it. It is a community that comes from that. I knew I was in good hands and making a great decision to join this family. There is a place there where you could be an extension of what we try to do through this show, as far as us as a community of artists in pop culture. We get to reach people and be a part of this great tour.”
Both have taken on very intense, emotionally charged roles. Having not acted in the past, we asked about the challenges of portraying such powerful characters every night.
“Our creative team was very supportive during the rehearsal process in helping us understand the story and why the characters go through what they do. The emotional weight that Tom Collins carries is not supposed to be a selfish one, it is one filled with hope, inspiration and optimism. That helps me to remember it is not about his personal strife, it is about him growing as an individual and being a voice that uplifts his community. I believe that Angel teaches him during the course of the story that it is always today for you, and tomorrow for me. That is the focus of the emotional energy. There is a weight, but the reason why there is the emotional weight is different than what most people would think, and what I thought in the story. Thank goodness for a great creative team that could share the original intentions of Jonathan Larson so that I know why,” said Anwar, who sees aspects of Collins in himself. “I don’t think I am as mature or stoic as he is, and I don’t think I would be rewiring anybody’s ATM machine. I have sung at many funerals however. Tom Collins is a great man and if I can have a piece of his resilience I think I will be doing pretty well.”
“Initially in the beginning, it was difficult to find that place. For me not being a trained actor it was tricky to get to those emotional depths. But our director was great at explaining to me what he wanted to see and where he wanted me to go. I had to go too far at that point to see how far you can go, and then reel it in to keep it within the show. With that process I was eventually able to find that place where I could go every night and not break down backstage,” added Heinz. “My aim is really to bring across the struggle that Roger has, you really have to see how depressed the guy is in that moment [during the song One Song Glory] but there is that glimmer of hope.”
RENT was and continues to be groundbreaking in its honest portrayal of issues like drug use, poverty, AIDS, homosexuality and bi-sexuality. Winkler said that with a couple of exceptions, the response to the tour from audiences has been positive.
“I have heard from some cast members that some people will leave at the end of the first act or during La Vie Boheme. It tends to be the more conservative people who didn’t come to see RENT specifically, they have season’s tickets, and sometimes it is a bit much for them. But in general we get really positive feedback. For me the experience of the show is that it takes those issues to create a setting with a specific story of each person and bring across a message of tolerance, community and family. The message is that there is no day but today, to make the most of each moment, be yourself and live it to the fullest. That is the end goal, to get that message across and I think people can look past some themes or language that might shock them initially and they can see what is trying to be said. That is my experience from seeing it the first time. Growing up in South Africa and that environment is a little more conservative than what is portrayed in the show. It is kind of shocking but in the end, it is the reality of life that is being used to tell the story, which I really enjoy. None of the show is gratuitous or over the top or unnecessary, it is just the way it is in a musical context about people living in lower Manhattan in the 90’s.”
May 23rd – 25th, 2008
Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Tickets at Ticketmaster.
Limited $20 seats available at the box office 2 hours before each performance.