New York Theatre Workshop, original producers of the Broadway hits Rent and Dirty Blonde, hosted a day-long open house on Sunday, July 16, offering neighbors and theatre fans a chance to tour the East Fourth Street facilities, learn about the theatre's history, and sample a variety of theatre pieces.
A highlight of the day was the "Rent Reunion," a panel discussion with almost all of the original company, led NYTW's artistic director Jim Nicola. The 188-seat auditorium was packed, with many fans and autograph-seekers left waiting on the street. To the strains of Rent's title song, Shelley Dickinson (understudy), Taye Diggs (Benny), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Rodney Hicks (ensemble), Kristin Lee Kelly (ensemble), Jesse L. Martin (Collins), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Aiko Nakasone (ensemble), Timothy Britten "Toby" Parker (ensemble), Adam Pascal (Roger), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi), Mark Setlock (understudy), Gwen Stewart (ensemble) and Byron Utley (ensemble) took the stage to discuss what they've been doing since they left the show, what it was like to be caught up in the whirlwind of Rent's success, and how they try to keep grounded in the fickle business they call show.
Fredi Walker (Joanne) faxed in greetings from Barbados where she has relocated since marrying a few years ago. Unable to attend were Anthony Rapp (Mark) and Gilles Chiasson (ensemble).
Several of the cast have gone on to high-profile acting jobs: Taye Diggs in feature films and, with Idina Menzel, in the recent Manhattan Theatre Club Wild Party; Jesse L. Martin on television's "Ally McBeal" and "Law and Order"; Adam Pascal in Aida. Mark Setlock, who played Angel during a 1994 workshop and understudied the role on Broadway, has been starring in his one-man show, Fully Committed, which Pascal and Martin co-produced. Byron Utley, citing the narrow spectrum of roles for black men, and how much he believes in Rent's message, has stayed with the show for the entire run. Several of the cast members are working on screenplays or developing dramatic works; others are doing some teaching.
But cast members also spoke candidly about the flip side of fame. They explained how, when your show is on the cover of Newsweek and on taxi cabs, you think you're invincible; there's pressure to top yourself and, inevitably, the danger of disappointment. Wilson Heredia said that after winning a Tony Award, he got the same response at auditions that he did pre-Rent: "You did a nice job. We're not giving you the part." Toby Parker spoke of a lingering depression that followed Jonathan Larson's death. Daphne Rubin-Vega referred to a recording contract with a music company that has since "imploded." Kristen Lee Kelly, now a spiky haired blonde -- who says she gets less attention because she looks different than she did during Rent -- got a laugh by musing, "Why is it that when you're on Broadway they give you things for free, and when you're not working, they stop?"
Various members of the group also made the point that they felt a special connection to each other and to the show before it became a phenomenon. While grateful for the fame, they try to remember Rent for how special it was then, and not just for the mega-show it has become.
Other events at NYTW included, a conversation with Claudia Shear; scenes from Everything That Rises Must Converge" adapted (and directed) by Karen Coonrod from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories; a mini festival of solo pieces; a “Puppet Making Workshop”; and a performance of songs from Bright Lights, Big City and upcoming projects by Paul Scott Goodman.