Playing Angel, the street musician and drag queen dying of AIDS, in Rent has been a wonderful experience for 23-year-old Wilson Cruz. Cruz is making his legit stage debut in the musical's Angel Company, which premiered in July, 1997 at the San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse.
"It's been wonderful and, at the same time, I can't explain the nervousness I went through in the beginning," said Cruz. "I had seen the show in New York and had such a deep respect for Wilson Jermaine Heredia's performance [Heredia won a 1996 Tony as Best Featured Actor]. I didn't want to do a mediocre job. I kept thinking 'What am I doing? What makes this me think I can do this?' For a while, I was in a mess."
At first, Cruz said he thought he'd have a problem being comfortable with the role, then with having to dance in high-heel platform shoes. "It didn't take long to embrace the role," explained Cruz, "and, surprise, I didn't have a problem with the heels. Playing Angel has been a great learning experience. Jonathan Larson wrote him so well. The audience response has been overwhelming."
But, his first night in front of an audience, Cruz was was a bit taken aback. "I had no idea," he said, "what being on stage would be like or how I'd react to the applause. I didn't think I deserved their applause. Then I realized I'd done something to make them feel something. That made it okay. But it was weird." He quickly added, "A nice weird."
Cruz says the person most helpful in getting his performance right is director Michael Grief, who directed Rent Off-Broadway and in its acclaimed move to Broadway, where the show won the 1996 Tony for Best Musical. Grief is also artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse's two stages, which are composed of the main 499-seat theatre, where Rent is playing its SRO engagement and the 399-seat second stage. "Michael's been a godsend," said Cruz. "He allowed me to breathe my own life into something that had already been done beautifully, instead of telling me to do what had been done. He let me use my instincts and have some fun with Angel. Michael said 'You just can't mess Angel up.' He was right. It's amazing how the audiences take to the character. But why shouldn't they? He's just this beam of light. Someone who always has a smile on his face and the ability to make even the worst things right."
Cruz hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had a goal of "entertaining people," first in elementary school, then in the high school band and show choir. When he was 15, he came with his family to California. The next year he began auditioning and got an agent. His first job was with an all-ethnic touring company that specialized in Shakespeare. He attended California State University, where he did numerous musicals.
"When I got the appetite for more and more theatre," Cruz said, "all I could think of was trying to get back to New York. This Rent tour may just do the trick."
Rent's Angel Company will end its 11-week run at La Jolla Sept. 13 and begin a tour, currently booked into 1999. The next stop is Los Angeles, where Rent will sit down for 18 weeks.