After Rent made its debut at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in January 1996, the musical quickly took off—garnering national press and critical acclaim before it was decided that it would transfer to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre. Read more about the musical’s creation here.
On April 29, 1996, Rent opened on Broadway. Now, 20 years later, members of the original Broadway cast share details from the audition room and their fondest memories from the Rent experience. They reminisce on backstage shenanigans (including the time Taye Digg’s went streaking after he was cast in How Stella Got Her Groove Back), onstage mishaps and, of course, Jonathan Larson.
Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen)
It became a whirlwind, but always at the center of it was that fact, that event—that terrible event [of Jonathan Larson’s death]—so it felt like both [a] whirlwind and slow motion for me. All of it is so vivid, partly because of trauma. When we [would] show up at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Vanity Fair is coming to do a photo shoot, it’s this surreal thing happening at the center of what is also happening, which is this personal grief. The thing I always remember feeling is that everything felt so appropriate. It felt earned. It felt right because yes, this story—all of this needs to be talked about, and all of this deserves to be seen and told and heard because something really important and vital and incredible is happening, and Jonathan is not here, so yes, we will do anything… I mean, I can’t speak for everyone. That’s how I felt. We need to have his story be told.
Adam Pascal (Roger Davis)
We were such a family, so all 15 of us were always together, so wherever we went, it was all of us. I can’t remember a time where I ever sat out here [in the house of the Nederlander Theatre] alone. I was never alone. And, I had nothing to compare it to because I had never done anything like that before. It was my first show, and so everything was such a new experience to me, even being in a theatre without a show being performed was so exciting to me because I had never been in a theatre with the lights on, where there wasn't a show going on onstage. Even the times I was in the theatre with the show going on were extremely rare. I think I'd only seen two Broadway musicals by that point in my life.
That alley out there… Some amazing things happened out there, and I met some amazing people in that alley, from Robert De Niro to Tom Cruise to Jim Carrey to Prince to Roger Daltrey to Billy Joel, Steven Spielberg… Everyone you can think of, I met in that alley after the show. And, it was a really amazing thing. I watch what’s going on with Hamilton now, and I’m like, “Yeah, I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. I remember that feeling.”
Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel Schunard)
I remember it being uncharted territory for me. I hadn’t done many musical theatre auditions ’til then, so I sang “Great Balls of Fire” and “Amazing Grace” [at auditions].
There are too many funny mishaps to mention, but the most notable for me is losing my wig in the middle of “La Vie Boheme.”
One of my favorite onstage moments is after the show won the Tony for Best Musical. We walked onstage to our starting positions and received a standing ovation from the audience before Anthony spoke his first words. I felt very proud for us.... It was amazing to meet so many notable actors, artists and celebrities that loved the show. All of them are memorable. Personal favorites: Jim Carrey, Liza Minnelli, Demi Moore let me rub her bald head when she was shooting G.I. Jane and the Purple One, Prince. [Offstage], I remember Jesse Martin’s incredible New Years parties. It was a time when we would all let our hair down and enjoy each other’s company.
Idina Menzel (Maureen Johnson)
I had a boyfriend who was working at an acting agency. He faxed my resume kind of secretly through to [casting director] Bernie Telsey. I got in; they were looking for unknowns, and there I am in this show in its early incarnation, and the composer wants to work with us and develop it around us.
When Jonathan passed away, it was like life imitating art. This show—we’re young, and it’s becoming this thing much bigger than us… At a time where we could have lost our perspective, and we’re on all the covers of all of these magazines and everything, we’re getting up there and singing his music, and that’s the only thing we could do to give back to him. It was completely in the moment, and it was [being] committed to what he gave us. We all know that it’s really hard to be in the moment all the time and be appreciative and grateful for where we are, but it was a really good imprint in my life to keep remembering. When you lose sight of that or you start complaining about champagne problems—stuff like that—you go, “Wait a second,” so I just think that all of that set a pattern for me.
Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi Marquez)
“Roxanne” by the Police [was my audition song], and [Anthony Rapp] sang R.E.M. I remember standing outside the door, like staring through the doors and listening to [him] singing “Losing My Religion.” I remember it.
I felt like we were just an inseparable posse. Idina and Adam and Jesse and Anthony and Taye… We were all like, “Go see Rent! Go see Rent!” We were like a graffiti bunch of kids in the Village just going, “Hey everybody, go see Rent!” [We were] very young and silly and fun, and we had so much energy! I don’t know where that energy f*cking came from, but we could hang out all night, get up the next day, do press, do this, do that, do the show, hang out all night, get up the next day, do this, do that all over again. It was fun! I remember Taye, when we were taking photographs in front of Chelsea Piers on opening night on Broadway… It was like the big flash pops of paparazzi, and Taye’s face—this ear-to-ear grin like, “Oh my God, guys! This is happening!” And, when I think of him then and I think of him now, that makes me f*cking laugh!
Fredi Walker-Browne (Joanna Jefferson)
When we get back together, there is no time in between [us]. It's been ten years since I've seen these people, and yet it doesn't matter.
Once we blew up, I knew what it was. I knew that; that's why I kept everything. Before it blew up, it was just a gig. It was a gig. It was my Equity weeks. I needed my insurance. I was an actor. I was like, “This is a gig. I’m doing my job.” I remember the first rehearsal, and I was like, “Wow. These are some pretty people.” As they walked in the door, I was like, “Damn! These are some pretty, pretty people!” And, I had no idea what the show would be—if it would be any good or if it would suck—but when we sang “Seasons of Love,” that was the first song we ever sang, I was like, “Wow, if this show sucks, it is going to be some of the best songs you ever heard.” Because wow! On top of beautiful people, [they had] just these huge voices. I hadn't heard any buzz or anything. I was too busy directing and doing my own thing. I'm always kind of wrapped up. It was funny because I had just done Where’s Waldo? with Daphne, so I was like, “Oh my God, there’s her!”
But it was the sitzprobe. When the sitzprobe happened, this was a hit. [I thought], “This is a hit! This really is a hit!” And then, when I got that terrible phone call [that Jonathan Larson died], I was mad because I was like, “Dude! We didn’t need that. We would have done this without that!” It may not have gone stratospheric, but we would have done it. I was so mad—just hurt, mad, sad, all of it… I knew what was going to happen after that. I'm no fool. Interviews. The Times. The subject matter of the show. I knew it. I said, “We’re going to be the biggest hit ever.”
Gilles Chiasson (Steve, man with squeegee, a waiter and others)
I remember deciding that, after a few years working regionally, I desperately wanted to find work in NYC, so I could try sleeping in my own bed for a change. When my friend, Martha Banta, told me about the workshop of Rent back in ’94, this became my first foray into making good on that decision. I have no recollection at all of what I sang, but I remember getting Jonathan’s material to learn for the callbacks and being totally inspired by it.
Apparently, I made a lot of mistakes on stage during my time in Rent. There was actually a website devoted to categorizing my errors, if you can believe that.
I remember two of my mistakes in particular. One, I was on for Mark and went up on the lyrics near the end of the opening number when everyone was grouped together center stage. My castmates started saying the words quietly behind me trying to help me. We were a family, and I felt so taken care of in that moment. During another time on for Mark, I remember going up on the lyrics during “Bustelo, Marlboro…” I was holding the white bucket. I was so focused on getting the words that when they finally came to me, for some unfathomable reason, I threw the bucket really high up into the air, like almost to the top of the Christmas tree high. I guess I did make a lot of mistakes. Ah, well… My heart was always in the right place.
There was a performance where I got the night off to play the “Maintenance Man” on As The World Turns, my first TV gig. I arrived at CBS on 11th Avenue around 6 AM and, after a fitting and camera blocking, I sat in my dressing room for hours. Around 3 PM, I got word that Anthony was out, and they wanted me to come in to do Mark in the show that night. And then I went back to the dressing room and sat and waited and waited. Around 6 PM, I started to panic. Finally, I convinced someone to alter the shooting schedule so I could do my scene in time to get to the show. Thank goodness Rent was a hit. I'm sure that helped sway them. Long story short, I got two takes and then I jumped in a cab. I arrived at the Nederlander at 7:55 PM and did the show. I'd say that was a big day.
I will never forget the parties we went to on opening night of the Off-Broadway production. I remember reading a review of the show in the Village Voice late in the night, and running up to Taye and saying, “Remember that show that everyone in your college theatre department listens to and wants to be in when they graduate? For me at U of M [University of Michigan], it was Les Miz. Well, now we’re in that show.”
Rodney Hicks (Paul, a cop and others)
My initial audition for Rent was in December of 1995, and I was 21 going on 17. To look older, I decided to use mascara to draw on a goatee. I couldn’t grow facial hair at the time. After the backflip I remember doing while performing an improved hip-hop dance I was asked to do, it sweated off. Taking off my Christmas red cardigan sweater probably wiped it off as well. I don't know if Bernie [Telsey] remembers, but right before I left the room, he had told me to be sure and check the mirror and gave a gesture to his chin. I knew exactly what he meant. Oops. An hour or so later I found out I booked the show. But I wouldn't recommend that scenario to anyone!
Every time Jesse Martin sang the lyrics, “Throw down the key,” it always reminded me of one of my favorite Jon Larson memories of when I worked with him before Rent on his show Blocks in February of 1995, with Anthony Rapp and Yassmin Alers. I called from the pay phone across the street, and he opened his window and threw down the key. Life imitating art. Gets me [every time], even to this day.
[My favorite offstage memory] was technically in rehearsal for our Off-Broadway production while we were still in the upstairs NYTW rehearsal room. It was when Jesse Martin suggested that I make a popping sound with my tongue before my “La Vie Boheme” character says, “ill.” From there out that pretty much informed my character in that scene, and the amazing Angela Wendt costumed me accordingly for the scene.
Aiko Nakasone (Alexi Darling, Roger’s mom and others)
There are so many wonderful onstage memories. Some of my favorites [include] the onstage reading that was supposed to be our first preview at the New York Theatre Workshop the day after Jonathan passed, our opening night show at the Nederlander, every night hearing Jesse sing “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” after Angel dies. But, in terms of mishaps, the most memorable for me is when Gilles was on for Mark and he forgot the words to the first verse of “Rent,” so he just starts singing “Nana na na na nana…” to the melody. We were all behind him onstage in a clump looking at him surprised. I think we all thought he would get his memory back for the second verse, but he didn't and started singing “Na na…” again. All of us in the clump behind him started singing the words of the verse as loud as we could so that he could hear us and catch on, but the only lyric he got was the last “Rent” before it was Adam’s turn to sing.
One of my favorite backstage moments was my one-on-one time to chat with Taye before the end of the show. He would come to the dressing room down in the basement while I was getting ready for the finale, and we'd talk about life.
Gwen Stewart (Mrs. Jefferson, woman with bags and others)
It was December 2005 [during auditions], and we were in the middle of a huge blizzard in the tri-state area. I had to travel (public transportation) from New Jersey to lower Manhattan during rush hour in the middle of a blizzard. By the time I got there I was cold, wet, tired and questioning why I decided to make this journey in a snow storm. I walked into the waiting room and another wave of disappointment hit me. Every fierce singing black diva was in that room; I recognized a few of them. I said, “Well, I’m here. Let me belt one out and head home.” I sang a gospel song: “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” I sing my song, get a few nods, and I think I'm done. [Musical director] Tim Weil asks me to do some scales to see what my range was. Michael Greif asked if I had a problem playing a homeless woman. I said no, as long as I’m not making fun of them. They said thank you; I said Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah and made my way back home. When I got home there was a message on my answering machine: “We loved you and would like to have you start tomorrow.” YAAAAAAAAS! And that is how it all started
The last week of performing Rent at NYTW, I was sick as dog, but didn't miss any shows. I had to alter my solo because parts of my voice were weak or simply missing. I hate not being at my best for every show, but I muscled through to the end of the run. During rehearsals leading up to opening I was doing the same thing I’d done in my solo at NYTW, but I wasn’t happy with it. So here I am on the Broadway stage singing my solo, and that high C came out of nowhere! What an awesome feeling to have a truly unrehearsed, organic moment on stage. The crowd went wild! And the high C “Seasons” solo was born.
When Rent opened on Broadway, swept all the awards and became the hottest ticket in town, doing publicity came along with the notoriety. So requests from every on-at-the-crack-of-dawn morning show started rolling in. At the time, I lived in New Jersey, and it was quite the commute getting into New York, especially at 5 AM for a 7 AM call time. I was getting home from the show around 1 AM then getting up a few hours later to get a cab into New York. It was extremely draining, but I had to be ready to hit that “Seasons of Love” high C on national TV. So I started sleeping on the floor of my dressing room. It was uncomfortable, but I was sure to be on time for every call. No one knew I was sleeping at the theatre. One day I got caught by David Santana, who came to pick up some make up. I told him I was sleeping at the theatre, so I wouldn't be late for morning publicity calls. He said, “Girl, you shouldn’t be sleeping on the floor in your dressing room. You are the friggin’ Seasons of Love Soloist! What the @#%$!” He was right. I don’t remember how it worked itself out, but I had a hotel room reserved for me before every early morning publicity call. Shout out to David Santana, hair and make up designer for Rent.
Ahhhh, I remember this like it was yesterday: Taye Diggs got an audition for How Stella Got Her Groove Back while doing Rent. It was set in Jamaica, and his character had to have a Jamaican accent. I am of Jamaican parentage, so I helped Taye by recording some of his dialogue using a Jamaican accent to help him learn the cadence. I personally don’t remember him making a “specific declaration” if he got the show; all I remember was Taye running through the halls backstage butt-naked! I just wish I had my camera handy that day!
I was raised in a strictly religious household. My views of people, relationships and the world were seen through teachings in the church. Rent’s subject matter changed, or rather opened up, a new way of thinking for me. Eight times a week I experienced what these characters went through and saw things from their perspective. In short, I became an even more loving and accepting person.
At the Nederlander, to get to the backstage door you have to walk down an alleyway. This alley, once dingy and dirty, became a wonderful place for fans to express themselves by writing their thoughts about the show. There was always some new saying or moment of gratitude expressed to Jonathan and the cast. The thing that made me do a double take happened while walking out one day. I usually glance at the walls to see what new piece of writing was put up, so I look up and see a drawing of me! Someone drew me in my “Seasons” costume, jewelry, braids, boobs and all! The thing that makes this story even better is, not long after the drawing went up, the fire marshal came and said the mostly wood doors had to come down and fireproof doors put up. So before they could throw my drawing away, I wrapped up the door, tied it to the roof of my car (with help from the guys) and took that door and my drawing home. I still have that door 20 years later. So if whoever drew that picture sees this: THANK YOU!
Yassmin Alers (Swing)
I sang “Easy to Be Hard” from Hair. I knew exactly what they were looking for, having just seen my friends (Anthony Rapp and Rodney Hicks) in the show downtown, so I was especially relaxed at the audition.
At intermission [during a performance], due to an actor getting sick, I was told I had to go on for the male Seasons Soloist part. As dance captain, I’d taught the track to others, but never once performed it. Stage management assured me that they would get someone else to sing the solo. I then assured them that if I were going to be stressed out going on for this role, at the very least, I would absolutely be singing the solo specialty. The Rentheads went crazy when it was announced.
There were six swings in the show. When all of the swings were off, we would have gatherings we called “mofo parties” that would take place in the hair room. It included alcohol, food, games, dressing up and dancing. These parties did not occur often due to the fact that swings were constantly on, but when they did, they were fun-filled and amazing.
I had no idea how limited my definition of the word “beautiful” was until I started working on Rent. Up until then, beauty was defined by what the media had been shoving down our throats—straight blond hair, pale skinned and thin were in. Then Rent happened, and all of a sudden the melting pot of what made NYC so special and unique were on stage for all to appreciate, accept and worship.
Darius de Haas (Swing)
I auditioned when it was about to open at NYTW for Jonathan Larson, Michael Grief and Tim Weil. I had just gotten back from this European tour, and I had to learn “I’ll Cover You.” From my own rep, I sang “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
The understudies (me, Yasmin, Simone, Shayna [Steele], Norbert [Leo Butz], Mark [Setlock] and David [Driver], at that time) would have Gospel day up in the wardrobe room where we hung out, and we would play everything from Mahalia Jackson to the Winans to Kirk Franklin—and singing at the top of our lungs! We also would play very naughty truth or dare games! Loved my peeps!
David Driver (Swing)
I had two rounds of auditions—the first when the show was being mounted downtown. At the time, I had this band called Meow—I think the reason Bernie Telsey and his colleagues even knew who I was was that we had auditioned for a Miller Lite commercial they were casting. Our album had just come out; the band was touring, I thought I was so busy, so I bowed out of the audition process, thinking that this was going to be a cool little show that would run for a few weeks and be done and would interrupt my work with the band. It quickly became clear that this was not a prudent decision. So the next round of auditions was when the show moved to Broadway. I ended up understudying Roger, Mark and the Gilles and Toby tracks.
Sherry Lansing and William Friedkin were at the show the first time I ever went on (as Roger). She gave me a very long hug afterward, and they were both quite effusive. I think that night had been a massive challenge for everyone else involved—and I can't even tell you how challenging it was for me! It was pretty much the most terrifying experience of my professional life; especially in that the Roger character doesn't leave the stage for the first 45 minutes or so. I will always remember my encounter with the two of them, and how kind and encouraging they were because of all that.
I remember going out to dinner for the first time with the whole cast—to a Chinese restaurant near Times Square with huge round tables. I was the new kid—they had all been working together for a while, and I'd come in last. I'll always remember Taye Diggs asking me a bunch of questions about myself, which was fun and uncomfortable at the same time. He was very direct. I kind of think, if his personality is the same as it was, that he’d be a good person to have a cool talk show. Like a new version of The Mike Douglas Show! Where the host does a song and whatnot and then has a bunch of guests and conversation. We need that now! Someone should pitch that.
And it was always fun to hang out with Anthony. I once convinced him to go, between shows one Saturday, to have lunch at some exciting Cuban place I’d heard about that was way uptown. We drove, there was traffic, and of course we ended up being late for half-hour. It was delicious! But worth the stress? Maybe not.
I used to ride my bike to the Nederlander Theatre. Occasionally, the crowds at half-hour would be so intense that I'd have to carry it upside down, above them, through the lobby to get back to the stage door. I think it might have added a bit of downtown reality to that midtown theatre crowd. Oh—and someone tried to steal my bike once, from the backstage area! Luckily one of the stage managers caught them. I remain grateful for that.