Daphne Rubin-Vega, best known to Broadway audiences for creating the role of Mimi in Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, is returning to Broadway this season in the eagerly awaited revival of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables. Directed by John Caird, the international hit musical begins previews Oct. 24 at the Broadhurst Theatre and casts Rubin-Vega as Fantine, the ill-fated mother who must sell her locket, her hair and eventually her body to care for her young daughter Cosette. The role, which was created on the London stage by Patti LuPone to Olivier Award-winning effect and on Broadway by Tony winner Randy Graff, offers Rubin-Vega the chance to sing what may be the show's most beautiful and haunting ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream."
It's an especially busy period for two-time Tony nominee Rubin-Vega, who is also the mother of Luca, who turns two in December: On Oct. 17 the multi-talented performer will release her latest solo recording on the Sh-K-Boom Records label. Entitled "Redemption Songs," the 12-track disc features original tunes penned by Rubin-Vega as well as covers of "Angel Now," "En Estos Dias," "The Rainbow Connection" and the title tune. The singing actress will also take a brief hiatus from Les Miz this spring to co-star with Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in the LAByrinth Theater Company production of Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating at the Public Theater.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the good-humored Rubin-Vega about her many projects during a rehearsal break from Les Misérables; that interview follows.
Question: How did the role of Fantine come about for you?
Daphne Rubin-Vega: John Caird came to see the Rent 10 [anniversary] benefit [concert]. I didn't know him at the time, but at the after party, the loud and raucous after party, one of the producers of Rent introduced me to John, and in the midst of it all, he said something like, "Wouldn't she make a great Fantine?" At the time I had no idea that they were considering doing a revival of Les Miz, but it sort of put this little bee in my bonnet, and . . . I [told] my agent, "You know what, I'm interested in going in for that."
Rubin-Vega: I was asked to come in and sing the song, and I went in and sang the song and down the road a bit, I was told that I got the role.
Q: Had you been a fan of the show? Had you seen Les Miz during its original run?
Rubin-Vega: I saw it once toward the end of its run. . . My husband [Tommy Costanzo], who's in real estate, Les Miz was actually the musical that changed his life. . . .[He's] not a musical theatre fan in the big sense, but Les Miz is the exception — he knows the words to the whole thing, so I was very impressed that he knew so much and he was so enthusiastic. Usually he's very supportive, but he was particularly enthusiastic [about this project].
Q: I think Fantine gets the best song ["I Dreamed a Dream"] in the show. . .
Rubin-Vega: I think I have one of the best songs in musical theatre, if I may be so bold. To me, it's one of the most beautiful songs in musical theatre history that I know. Maybe you could pull out a song that I don't know. But in modern musical theatre history, it's definitely among the most brilliant songs I've ever sung or heard.
Q: How are you approaching the song?
Rubin-Vega: What I try to do is just hit the notes and tell the truth. [Laughs.] That's really as simple as it can be. The song, it sings for itself . . . because it's so laden with drama. [With] the story of Fantine, usually less is more, although I'm not really trying to do less. I'm just in the beginning — it's my second week of rehearsal, and I find that less is more. As long as you can physically hit the notes artfully, then just letting the song be is the best trick. And, I think to my benefit I didn't know too much about it, so I didn't have any preconceived notions about how Fantine should be. I know that some of the greats have played her. . . It's a lot of fun and challenge to read the big-ass book and read the parts of Fantine that are missing [in the musical].
Q: I was going to ask you whether you had gone back to the Victor Hugo novel.
Rubin-Vega: I'm reading the novel now. It's dense as all get-out. I read "Anna Karenina" for Anna in the Tropics. I always get the big books to read. [Laughs.]
Q: Does the novel give much more information about Fantine?
Rubin-Vega: Oh my God. In the novel the degeneration of her character, let's say, going from the seamstress who sells the locket of her loved one to pay for her child and then she sells her hair and then she sells her body. Between the hair and the body came the teeth. She sells her teeth. . . . I fell back on my chair [when I read that]. Just the tragedy of her physical state. She's poor, always been poor — she came from unknown origins. No one knew who her parents were, but she had this integrity and this beauty. It says she was rich, except that the gold was in her hair, and the pearls were in her teeth. And so to see the visual, to digest that she sells her hair and her teeth and there's still a modicum of beauty in her, but that gets killed. It all gets killed.
Q: Do you feel that the role is more accessible for you now since you're also a mother?
Rubin-Vega: Yes. . . . You can understand it in your head what it would be like to give everything up for your child, but when you have a child, it's just so visceral. I knew that I would begrudgingly take a bullet for my loved ones, but to actually know that you would fly in front of a bullet if it were coming towards your child and the things you would do. The decision is clear. . . . It's [also] amazing to get into this political world of [these] people [who] these days you could call them — there's a quality of terrorism in them because they had nothing to lose and how understandable that is from this point of view, from where I am standing in this context of the play. It's not hard to be victimized when you adhere so strongly to these romantic notions that maybe at first keep you strong because they keep you safe. Safe is good, but [things] can rapidly degenerate when you're constantly pooped upon by society.
Q: How are you finding the demands of the score?
Rubin-Vega: You'll see. [Laughs.] It's work for me because this is stuff that I haven't done before. At first it was very intimidating being in a room full of beautiful, young kids trained to the tee. And, so it's impressive, but it's wonderful because the bar is set pretty high, and I hope that I contribute to some of that, too.
Q: Sometimes the actress playing Fantine also appears in other scenes as a different character. Will you be doing that?
Rubin-Vega: I was doing some street urchin work today. I will be a street urchin. All that I can tell you right now is that I have chosen to be a boy.
Q: You also have a new CD coming out this month. Tell me about the title "Redemption Songs."
Rubin-Vega: "Redemption Songs" is the name of a Bob Marley song that I cover that — at least at the time when I recorded the album — was one of my favorite songs. It's a song that I wish I had written. I think it's a beautiful, prophetic song. Playing with my band for years now — it's been like six years — I really wanted to record an album that had new stuff that I had written within those years, and this was an opportunity to do it. It was really turning in my mind while I was pregnant, and so a lot of writing happened while I was pregnant. I actually started recording when my son was six weeks old . . . It was just something that I really wanted to do for no other reason than to just do it. It wasn't like I had a record deal obligation. And having had a record deal just after Rent hit big and then having that fall through was one of the greatest heartbreaking moments in my life. . . . At the protest of many people who cared about me — it was the advent of Napster — I was like, "If I can't release this album, and no one's going to hear it after it's taken 18 months of my life to make [with] all of my heart and love, I [want to make] it available for people on the web" and sort of promised myself to make sure people got it without turning a profit, so to speak. That was also the genesis of my band, having an environment where I could play the songs [from that recording].
Q: What happened with the record? Why was it not released?
Rubin-Vega: It was '98 and it was a deal with Mercury, which was part of Polygram, and Polygram got bought up by Universal/Def Jam, and all of the artists — with the exception of maybe Bon Jovi [and a few others] — hundreds of artists, myself included, were summarily dropped. The president of Mercury had signed me, the head A&R guy was my A&R guy, and when they get fired . . . [the new executives said], "We have no alliances to your record. We didn't help you make it. We need [new] blood. . ." So it was just . . . the kind of stuff that happens constantly in this business, but it was new and devastating to me.
Q: In the press notes for this CD, it says you wrote a lot of songs while you were pregnant and while the film of "Rent" was being made. Did that influence your writing? Was it difficult not being part of the movie?
Rubin-Vega: I had my own romantic notions of how the Rent film would be and who would direct it. [When] Spike Lee was going to direct it about five years ago, I [thought], "I have to make this film!" . . . After that one fell through, I thought, "Okay, as time [goes] on, it's a role that I love and will always be like another baby of mine, but it's time to move on and step into characters that have had more experience. I'm not 19 anymore. It was great when I was." I had let it go . . . [and] being pregnant [during the filming], it was like, "I'm not even in my body to do this," so it was clearly a decision that was made for me. I guess what really hurt, of course, was all my buds were doing it, people who had done [the original Broadway production] with me. I think I felt very left out, sort of dismissed. . . . The confluence of pregnancy and Rent being made into a film and being conspicuously absent was tough, so I turned where it was warm. I put it into writing. I just decided to go and do what I could do, what I wanted to do, what was organic.
Q: Did you ever see the movie or did you decide that would be too difficult?
Rubin-Vega: The other night, actually, it was on television, and we watched it. It wasn't from the beginning, so I haven't watched it from beginning to end yet, but I'm sure that time will come. At this point, I know everything is for a reason. . . . and if anyone one was going to do [the part], Rosario [Dawson] was a beautiful person to do it. If I had to cast it and not [choose] me, having her play Mimi was a great thing.
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