DIVA TALK: Chatting with Rent's Renée Elise Goldsberry Plus News of Egan and Ripley

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Rent's Renée Elise Goldsberry Plus News of Egan and Ripley
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ren Photo by Joan Marcus

Although she had already played Nala in The Lion King and created the role of Nettie in The Color Purple, it wasn't until a televised concert when I really took notice of the talents of singer-actress Renée Elise Goldsberry. Goldsberry — a two-time Daytime Emmy nominee for her work in "One Life to Live" — performed the Stephen Sondheim tongue-twister "The Miller's Son" during the June 2006 Broadway Under the Stars concert in Central Park, a tribute to Tony winner Hal Prince that was subsequently broadcast on local television. What was particularly thrilling about Goldsberry's rendition was her delivery of the song's final lines. In fact, her slight adjustment of the melody was so gorgeous that I've kept the concert on my DVR and whenever I want to hear something beautiful before I fall asleep, I replay that section of the song. Goldsberry is now lending that voice to the role of Mimi in the final cast of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical Rent, which will offer its final performance of a record-breaking 12-year-run Sunday, Sept. 7. I had the pleasure of chatting with Goldsberry this past week; our Rent-themed conversation, including a discussion of the Rent cinecast — a nationwide screening of a composite of the Aug. 20 and Sept. 7 performances — follows.

Question: How did the role of Mimi come about for you?
Renée Elise Goldsberry: I was playing Silvia in Two [Gentlemen of Verona] in Shakespeare in the Park a couple years ago and [Rent director] Michael Greif saw me in the show and felt that Mimi would be a great role for me. I didn't know that at the time, but I found out a while later that he was interested in me playing the role, and, of course, I was honored to play it. Ever since then we have been trying to find the right time.

Renée Elise Goldsberry with Will Chase in Rent
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Had Mimi been a role that you had wanted to play?
Goldsberry: I love Rent in general. I've always loved the musical, and I had supported many friends throughout the years who had joined the cast either on tour or in the Broadway show. I felt connected to the show as an audience member. Mimi was a role I always wanted to play, but I just didn't know if it was something that was ever going to happen. But more than any specific role in Rent, it was more the idea of the importance of the show and being a part of it in some way. Question: Do you remember when you first saw a production of Rent?
Goldsberry: One of my best friends, Kamilah Martin, joined the tour years and years ago. I flew into some town in the Midwest to see her. I think she was a swing, [and] she was on as the "Seasons of Love" soloist. I just cried through the whole thing. Literally, every time she opened her mouth, I just bawled. I had stopped doing theatre at the time. I was working more on recording and writing music. I was on a bit of a hiatus trying to focus on a different part of my career when I had gone to see the show. That's why I hadn't really become a part of [Rent], I think. That was when … [the Rent] auditions [took place] and people would all be [lined up] around the corner for open calls. I was the only one out of all my friends that didn't really go because I was all about recording and music. When I saw the show, I remember I thought, "Oh, my God, I totally miss the theatre and I have to go back." I remember that, very specifically feeling like, "What am I doing? I've got to go back!"

Question: How would you describe the character of Mimi?
Goldsberry: On the stage, I think she's one of the most amazing characters I've ever played. I'd venture to say "the best," but I'd feel like I was cheating on another character. [Laughs.] [She is] definitely the most challenging and the most exciting because she is so fully-developed in the show — she has such a journey in the show. There's just no bottom in terms of how deep you can go trying to discover her. Question: What are some of the challenges of playing the part?
Goldsberry: I think, in general, [the main challenge is] just doing justice to this character. Especially, at this time, when you're playing [the role] and the stories of all the people who have played it before you are so alive — the myths of what this girl did on "Out Tonight" or how this girl died. The stories are so great, it is kind of daunting to step into it at the last minute and figure out, "Well, who am I, playing this?" . . . It's so rare that you get an opportunity to be so completely challenged creatively. In this business opportunities come across so randomly and so seldomly that when you get, "Here. Go. Mimi. Rent. Broadway. Now…" you feel like, "what an opportunity" and you want to live up to it.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for the character?
Goldsberry: Well, the joke really is I always look forward to the moment right after "Out Tonight!" [Laughs.] There's a huge stress off of me. I love doing it, but the moment before my heart is still pounding. The funny thing about the show is, you think, "Whew, now that's over!" But there's never a moment in the show for Mimi where there's not still something that's crucial to experience. Even after you say goodbye to Roger in "Goodbye, Love," everybody else is thinking, "Alright, we're done. Where are we gonna go out for a drink?" I still have to come back on and die. To the very last minute she is moving through a journey.

Question: What does it mean to you to be in the final company of the show?
Goldsberry: I'm almost speechless. It's almost difficult to put into words what that feels like. I've already talked about the daunting nature of it, in terms of taking full advantage of [the experience], being worthy of [the role] and also, in a way, experiencing that for all of these people whose lives this show means so much to. One of the major things is feeling like, "How do I do this in a way that does honor to the creator of the show, his family, the family of people that initially did the show, and the director who gave me this honor, and all of the people that have come before?" And not just [honoring] them, but [also] the faces of all of the people who have supported the show so intensely over the years. Coming from a soap opera, there's a very particular kind of fan who supports a show for 30 years — their investment and their involvement in that world and those characters. When you get in those shows, you better come with it, because the standard is high just to do them justice. Rent feels exactly like that. I've never really felt that way in a Broadway show before. Those fans are very serious about the message of the show and the importance of it. You need to take it seriously when you get in the building.

Renée Elise Goldsberry
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: What has been the feeling backstage with the rest of the cast during this last week of the show?
Goldsberry: We sing it every day, "No day but today!" . . . [We're] trying to grasp each moment of the show and each day of the show, because we know it's ending. That's exactly what the characters in the show are doing with the way they are living their lives. Specifically Mimi, it's all about this moment right now — no day but today. We will forget everything before that we might regret, or we'll miss this.… Towards the second act, you discover that this family that we have created and we need is dying, we think, "How do we hold onto it? And how do we hold onto this moment? And how do we celebrate it and not focus on what we don't know, in terms of what happens next, but really embrace this moment here?" Jonathan Larson did us a huge favor in allowing us to sing exactly what we're feeling every day. It's beautiful, and it's one of those moments that I'll be grateful for the rest of my life. Question: Have you noticed any difference in audience reaction in the past couple of weeks, now that people know the show is coming to an end?
Goldsberry: Because I have been a part of the show for the last three months, even when I first got here and was watching the show preparing to go in, I could tell the difference being in this show and other shows in the sense that sometimes it feels like a Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are people that have never seen it before and are trying to go along the journey, but most people have. Every time a new song comes on — it's like being at a concert sometimes. They clap before something happens. They're singing along, and God forbid you mess something up, because they all know [the lyrics]! [Laughs.] That was always surprisingly unique to me about the experience of doing Rent and being in that audience. And that feeling is even more intense every show that passes — that feeling that they're trying to embrace it and hold onto it just like we are.

Question: I know they're filming the show the final night, and they also filmed the show Aug. 20. What was that first filming like?
Goldsberry: It was exciting and a bit scary for all the reasons that I've mentioned. Exciting, because it felt like we were doing something that was so important together, but scary because I think the show is brilliantly directed. And I say this knowing Michael Greif wouldn't read this until after [the show ends, so I'm] not kissing up! [Laughs.] But I think it's brilliantly directed, and I think to archive it is so important and different from archiving any other show that you've done because it's not going to be in a library somewhere. There was that pressure, and it was a bit frightening. [There is a] difference between a staged performance and a cinematic performance… and [we had to trust] that the people that we didn't know that were producing and directing it would capture it in a way that did it justice and the characters justice and us justice. You worry about things like, "Will they catch this particular moment? Will my face be huge on a screen while I'm sweating? The one moment that it's recording this, will it be as true as it normally is?" So you think about all of those things, but I felt, on that particular day, … it was kind of like getting married. [Laughs.] There's all this anxiety before and stress and preparation, and everyone's freaking out on some level. And then the day arrives and, all of a sudden, it's the perfect day. Everything falls into place even if you didn't think it was what it was going to be. It just felt like a blessed day.

Question: I saw it that day, and I thought it was a great performance — the best cast I'd seen in awhile. I was trying to watch the show and watch through some of the cameras, and it really looked impressive.
Goldsberry: Awesome. I think what's kind of cool is that Michael Greif had mentioned that [the performance] was interestingly kind of cinematic and theatrical at the same time. Our performances were reading both in close-ups on camera and also in the audience. That wasn't something we were just doing that night. I feel like we're always kind of living those moments in the most subtle ways and large ways. With this particular cast, that's what I enjoy so much about working with them as actors. I feel like we were just doing what we do. I don't know what portion of it reads to the back of the house … Perhaps you'll see something different that you didn't necessarily know was happening, I don't know. I know that a camera telling a story is a very specific tool: It basically tells your eye where to go. It's very different from watching a show in the theatre, so it's extremely important that the director who is directing the camera is telling the right story, and I think that [Michael Warren] did a brilliant job.

Zipporah G. Gatling, LaChanze and Leon G. Thomas III with Renée Elise Goldsberry in The Color Purple
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: What's next for you after Rent? Do you have other projects lined up?
Goldsberry: I'm not really sure. My biggest thing is getting the glitter out of my hair and healing my knees and some things that have been going through the rigor of the show. I'm extremely excited about joining with the cast and seeing [the Rent cinecast]. I'm excited and nervous about seeing it on the screen. But in terms of the next project, I'm not really sure what's next. Question: Would you like to do more theatre?
Goldsberry: Always. Absolutely. That's another thing that you mourn at the loss of anytime any show closes. You're always like, "What will be next, and will it ever compare to this?"

Question: One final question. Why do you think Rent has been the success it's been?
Goldsberry: For so many reasons. I think, for all of the people that were involved in the very beginning, from Jonathan Larson to Michael Greif to the entire original company and cast and the original band members, I just think something kind of divine happened when this very specific particular group of people got together. . . . I don't know that they had any idea that they were trying to change the world. They were just trying to be honest about a world that they thought was important to put on the stage and a message they thought was important to put on the stage. I think when you are that honest and [have] that kind of integrity about a goal . . . .I think it's rewarded. Obviously the message, you have to say that it's the most important thing, a message that celebrates life and love the way this does.

And, specifically, I remember when I first saw it, telling a story with the music of the time is something we don't do as often as we should when we create shows. I think the genre of musical theatre, when it started, the pop songwriters of the time were writing the music. I think sometimes when we write musicals now, we keep writing in that same style, as though that's the musical theatre genre.… We have to figure out how to tell stories with the music that we listen to now, or we'll lose our audience. That's the first thing that struck me so greatly when I saw the show. I'm like, "Yes! This is the music we listen to. You're telling a story with our music. It's an opera with our music." That's how I felt. . . . First time I heard it in my life, I wanted to scream, "Finally, someone is telling a story with this music." The irony is that it's not necessarily the music of this moment, and yet it still hits young people of the same age the same way. Isn't that amazing? It's so powerful. The arrangements are amazing. It's just beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful and, I think, blessed. And, I personally think it'll be back on Broadway in five minutes. So we're doing all this huge uproar and then literally it'll be like Les Miz and, in two minutes, will be back because I think Broadway will have a hole in it without Rent.

[Rent plays the Nederlander Theatre, located at 208 West 41st Street. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com . . . . Those unable to attend the final performances of Rent will be able to view the Jonathan Larson musical on movie screens across the country via Sony Pictures Releasing's new special programming division, The Hot Ticket. A composite of the best performances from the Aug. 20 and Sept. 7 shows will be screened nationwide Sept. 24, 25, 27 and 28. For more information visit http://www.thehotticket.net/rent.]

Alice Ripley

The Upright Cabaret in Mark's Restaurant in Hollywood, CA, will present two evenings celebrating the work of Lance Horne. The Sept. 19 and 20 concerts, entitled Open All Night: The Songs of Lance Horne, will begin at 9 PM. Among those scheduled to join composer Horne are Alice Ripley (Next to Normal, Side Show), Jennifer Leigh Warren (Big River, "Lipstick Jungle"), Tom Lowe (Les Misérables at the Hollywood Bowl), Julie Garnye (Actors Fund Hair concert), Tracie Thoms (Rent, "Cold Case") and special guest Alan Cumming (Cabaret). Upright Cabaret in Mark's Restaurant is located at 861 N. La Cienega Blvd. in West Hollywood, CA. For ticket information visit www.uprightcabaret.com or www.inticketing.com (keyword: Upright). 3S Theatre Collective (3STC), the New Jersey-based non-profit theatre company, will present One Night Only Sept. 22 at the Loews Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, NJ. The evening of disco-inspired Broadway show tunes will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. On the Town's Lea DeLaria will host the evening at the 1,400 seat venue. The concert will also feature the talents of Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Beauty and the Beast), Stanley Bahorek (Spelling Bee), Kirsten Bracken (Hairspray), Heather Parcells (A Chorus Line), Louise Stewart (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Patina Renea-Miller (Hair) and Rodney Hicks (Rent). The Studio 54-themed evening will also boast 12 back-up dancers. Attendees can expect to hear such tunes as Dreamgirls' "One Night Only," Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," The Wiz's "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" and The Rocky Horror Picture Show's "Hot Patootie (Bless My Soul)," among others. The Loews Jersey Theatre is located at 54 Journal Square in Jersey City, NJ. For tickets, priced $20-$25, visit www.3stc.com and click the One Night Only link.

Original Beauty and the Beast star Susan Egan will join the Los Angeles choral ensemble Vox Femina for Singular Sensations, which will kick off the group's 12th concert season. The Nov. 8 concert at the Zipper Hall in Los Angeles, CA, will feature selections from A Chorus Line, The Color Purple, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Wicked as well as a "Leading Ladies Medley" arranged by Mac Huff. Egan will join the ensemble with renditions of "Don't Tell Mama," "Getting Married Today," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "For Good" and "Defying Gravity" and will solo on "Don't Rain on My Parade," "I Dreamed a Dream," "Gimme Gimme" and "All That Jazz." The Zipper Hall is located within The Colburn School at 200 S. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, CA. For tickets, priced $25-$30, call (310) 922-0025 or visit www.voxfeminala.org.

A new musical revue celebrating Manhattan will be presented Mondays in October at the Metropolitan Room. Inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, Tim Di Pasqua's Notes on New York will play the intimate cabaret Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27 at 7 PM. The 90-minute song cycle will feature Di Pasqua at the piano with singing actors Natalie Venetia Belcon, Vicky Devany, Keithon Gipson, Lennie Watts and Jennifer Zimmerman. The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 32 West 22nd Street. There is a $25 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 206-0400 for reservations.

Casting is now complete for the Reprise Theatre Company's upcoming production of the Michael Stewart-Cy Coleman musical I Love My Wife. Directed by Larry Moss with choreography by Lee Martino, the musical will play the Brentwood Theatre Dec. 2-14. Joining the previously announced Vicki Lewis and Jason Alexander are Lea Thompson ("Caroline in the City," Cabaret) and Patrick Cassidy (42nd Street, Assassins). The latter replaces Steven Weber, who had been announced to be part of the production but withdrew due to scheduling conflicts. For tickets call the UCLA Central Ticket Office at (310) 825-2101 or visit www.reprise.org. The Brentwood Theatre is located at 11301 Wilshire Boulevard in Brentwood, CA.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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