A little over a year ago the musical Rent reinvigorated Broadway and helped to redefine the essence of the musical theatre. Now, director Chris Columbus brings the play to the screen making it even more relevant to today’s moviegoers and takes a risk by casting most of the original show’s leads.
At the time, Taye Diggs and Anthony Rapp were unknown, fledgling actors on the way to critical acclaim. Today some are better known than others with Diggs best known amongst the original stage cast. The pair reflected on their respective memories and analysis of the Rent phenomenon to Garth Franklin in New York.
Question: What’s the key difference for you between the play and the film?
Rapp: The key difference is that you can get close in on the characters in a way that you simply can’t on stage. The use of close-ups, reaction shots, there’s an incredible new level of intimacy into the actual lives of the characters. The play, I think that’s partly why so many people see it over and over again. As you get more and more familiar with it it keeps revealing itself, but in film it’s right there. There’s no question in anyone’s mind about the nature of the relationships or the plot points, which sometimes when people saw the play they were a little confused by things or didn’t quite get everything, but they were still so shaken or moved by it because it was so intense. What’s different are the technical aspects of it. On stage technically you have to project out to an audience. On film you just have to allow the camera to record. Technically, there are differences. Other than that, in both mediums you’re telling a story or in a scene with another person you’re expressing something from your core to another human being. All of the rest of that is more or less the same, and then it just becomes a matter of levels of expression of it, degrees of intensity.
Question: What about the tango scene?
Rapp: In the script I thought it was really smart and interesting and fun, and I was curious about how it was all going to turn out. It required a lot of rigorous rehearsal with Tracy, and I couldn’t have had a better partner. We both are not great dancers, and we both needed a lot of rehearsal. Taye’s a real dancer, he’s like a gorgeous dancer. He wouldn’t have needed nearly the rehearsal that we did.
Question: (question about doing vocals)
Rapp: We prerecorded everything because logistically it’s almost impossible to do, especially with rock ‘n’ roll music. They could do it in “Hedwig” because John Cameron Mitchell is in a band so all the instruments are feeding live and it’s not the same kind of ambiance going on in the rest of the room, whereas we’re on the street. It would be nearly impossible to record our vocals live and hear and feel the music. We had an incredible experience in the studio where we could take time in a way that we couldn’t with the original Broadway cast for budgetary reasons. And there’s this thing called comping, which I never learned before, where you do six takes of a song and they literally take a word or a line. That’s kind of cool to sit in the studio with Chris (Columbus) and our producer and in a way you’re crafting your performance, the performance that’s going to be on film, you’re really choosing with them what it’s going to be.
Diggs: The same way they do with scenes, where they take the editing and cuts and what not, so it’s very interesting.
Question: When they said they wanted the original cast, did you think that was just lip service?
Diggs: There had been talk about a film ever since we began doing the play. Personally, I never thought that they would go – because at the time none of us had any film experience so none of us had any draw.
Rapp: Speak for yourself.
Diggs: You’re actually right. I thought it was all lip service. The closest we came was Spike Lee, and I remember he had a meeting and he made a whole big deal because he met with all the original cast members, but it was made known to us that he didn’t have any real intentions of casting.
Rapp: And then literally on the cusp of it happening they couldn’t agree on a budget and then the rug got pulled out.
Diggs: We heard through the grapevine that there were names like Justin Timberlake.
Rapp: I didn’t feel it was lip service at all. The meeting I had with them, right away within 10 seconds, I mean I was knocking on wood and crossing my fingers, but I felt like it was going to happen.
Question: Do you feel like your villain is humanized in the film?
Diggs: That’s one of the positives of being able to use film. One of the main differences is that it’s much more intimate so you’re just able to see all these characters far more closely than you did on stage. I think you’re just able to zone in and hone in on specific characters at specific times, and it allows you to see more of them and the different aspects that they possess, the subtleties.
Question: (about Jonathan Larson’s passing away)
Rapp: We had a dress rehearsal, and it was an incredible dress rehearsal, which isn’t always the case, sometimes they’re disastrous, but this was literally like screaming, standing ovation, and Jonathan was crowded around by scores of people after the show wanting to talk to him. That already was something very unusual and special. There was a New York Times reporter there that night who was just going to be reporting on “La Boheme,” but he wound up being so taken by the piece that he wound up then having an interview with Jonathan. So all of these, you had a sense in the air that this was going to turn out well. For me, having known him for over a year, I was like very proud of him. I kind of wanted to talk to him after the show but I couldn’t because of all that going on, so I was like, oh, I’ll see him tomorrow. And then the next morning I woke up and there was a message on my voicemail from the artistic director that sounded very grave. I was like, did somebody get fired?
Diggs: That’s what we all thought. We all thought that the show was going to be canceled or that we all were getting fired, because they told us to all come to the theater.
Rapp: Before I had a chance to call anyone else my agent called me and told me that she knew the news that Jonathan had died because they were in the same office. I mean, it was incredibly shocking. Weirdly, it all made some sort of cosmic sense, that he had poured his whole being into the show and there it was, that that was the point of his life. That’s what we said as a way to comfort ourselves. And then we gathered at the theater, and I don’t know if Taye remembers this but there was a moment when we were sitting on stage and we didn’t know what to do, we were sitting silently, and Tim Wild, the original music director, suddenly starting sobbing, like galvanized sobs, and Taye just put his hand on his shoulder. Those were the kind of moments, just being there for each other. And then the question became what do we do tonight? That night was our first preview. It became pretty clear, Michael Grief and I, Jen Nicola were all talking. We couldn’t keep the theater silent, that became pretty clear. We didn’t want to do nothing. We wanted to do a sing-through of the show at least so it would be filled with his songs and his music. We invited his friends and family and they came and it was a packed house. Of course, everybody was in shock. We were sitting at tables like this and sort of singing the show, and lo and behold, we did this huge rocking number and it got a huge ovation, and the laughs got laughs. All the joy that’s in the piece was just as present as it had ever been.
Diggs: I’ll never forget. We all started singing at a long table just like this, and then slowly, it started with Daphne singing “Out Tonight.” Ah geez…..can you finish? Because it always gets me really emotional.
Rapp: We were singing but we couldn’t sing anymore, so she got up and just started dancing on the top of the table. And the Tango Maureen, we kind of got up and did a little short version of it. By La Vie Boheme we were all up on the table just doing the number. There was just no denying that that joy and passion was just as present that night in the face of this incredible sorrow as it had ever been. And then in Act II, because it’s much simpler, we decided to get up and do it. We came out and did the lines from Seasons of Love, and that was when … you know, when you sing your throat has to be open and when you cry your throat closes up. So that was the first occasion we had to really learn how to sing when your throat is closing up.
Diggs: We lost our voices.
Rapp: But then Gwen Stewart who was playing the soloist somehow sang through that whole thing, and then Jesse Martin in the I’ll Cover You reprise. When we all couldn’t make a sound, he sang through it. Having that experience of no matter what getting through it for their sake, for our sake, and then at the end of the night when we were done singing the show there was the most absolute silence I’ve ever experienced, to have hundreds of people singing in total, complete silence, not moving a muscle, and then finally someone said, “Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” and that was kind of like the release, and then people moved. It was an unforgettable night, and it was the beginning of the rest of it. And then it became a task of figuring out to finish the piece that was unfinished. We did the best we could under the circumstances, and then with the film we’ve gotten to refine it even more and clarify things.
Question: With the film do you now end a chapter in your life?
Rapp: Yeah, the movie’s forever. We’ve said it before, but it’s a miracle we got asked to do it, and to do in the circumstances we got to do it with so many of our friends and with a director who passionately cared about it. There’s nothing calculated about any of the decisions that went into making this movie. It was I think on Chris’s part an act of courage. I know people will be skeptical, we were skeptical, with Chris’s track record would this be material that he could tackle. From moment one of meeting with him he said, “This is going to be the most important film I’m ever going to make” and I’m like hmmm. I don’t think people just go around saying that kind of thing.
Question: Why do you think the film will resonate for contemporary audiences in the same way that the play did?
Rapp: I just think that the themes are timeless, and that any time when you’re dealing with the larger questions of what it means to be alive and what it means to be a part of a community and what you do in the face of struggle and loss and love, I think those are questions that anyone can relate to. In today’s very divided political climate I think any piece that presents a real tapestry of human experience in the way that “Rent” does can only forward the conversation instead of splitting people apart.
Diggs: And simply put, you know, good is good. Why are people today still buying Ray Charles, not to compare us to these amazing singers, but something can be timeless, and if it’s quality it stands up throughout time, and I think this is definitely, to say the least, quality.
Question: Was there any concern when the first one of you was cast that this might end your marriage?
Diggs: (laughs) Noooo. I remember thinking, it was weird, but before I knew what Chris was going to do with it it was a issue of…..I didn’t want to sign on unless I knew that this piece was going to be in the right hands, and he gave me some indication by agreeing to use all of us. But then I read the script. I couldn’t imagine speaking some of the songs that we had sung, so that freaked me out, so for a while I didn’t know whether or not I was going to do it, but we had agreed that regardless it would just be good for her career because I had done a few more films and she had not. We kind of had made that agreement that it was something she should do regardless of whether I was in it or whether it was going to be good or not. But luckily, we both did it, we both stayed together.
Question: Has she done a couple of movies?
Diggs: Yeah, she’s done a couple. One is called “Ask the Dust,” that’s Colin Farrell.
Question: When’s your next one?
Diggs: My next one coming out is a movie called “Rent.” I’m doing a play now and we’re developing a TV show for ABC. I dipped my toes in it (TV) and the water was nice and now I’m going to come on as an executive producer and have more to say.
Question: Do you still get death threats because of your inter-racial marriage?
Diggs: Do I STILL get them? We got one. You really shouldn’t believe what you read in the press.
Question: Do you think people will go see the film given that there are gay relationships in it?
Rapp: I think some people might stay away. The show has played all over the country, and it’s pretty much sold out everywhere including small towns, so you never know. A friend of mine lives in Nashville, and “Rent” was there, it was a subscription series and they sent out a letter to their subscribers saying this play has this, this and this, and you can turn in your ticket and get a refund, and there were people who took them up on that offer, but then other people bought those tickets. I grew up ….. (tape turns over)…..there were kids in my high school who needed to see our lives mirrored to us and we did not have much opportunity. One of the first opportunities we had was Alternative Nation on MTV. That was like a little lifeline for us, frankly. I believe in my heart that there are all kinds of those people in all of these towns. I know this anecdotally, because I read the Internet and check out what people are saying. They’re literally from all over the country, and all over the world people have experienced this play.
Question: Do you feel fewer people are coming out now?
Rapp: No, they are. They never were before. There are still some high-profile people who are in the closet and they may always be, and sometimes it’s a matter that their grandmother doesn’t know and so they’re dealing with that as much as they are anything else. If you’re in the public eye you have an opportunity to make a difference. It’s an opportunity that borders on responsibility. I think there’s a difference between lying and keeping quiet. I do take issue with people who actively cultivate another version of their lives that’s not true, but I also feel bad for them. I can’t imagine that it’s a very pleasant way for them to live. I know Ian McKellen talks about how much freer he feels as an actor in the years since he’s come out. What you have available to yourself is yourself. If there’s parts of yourself that you’re hiding and you’re not dealing with in yourself, to me you’re bound to express things in the character. Part of the reason I always did it, I worked with Larry Kramer, and he’s a very galvanizing person as you can imagine. I came out in a bio of a playbill, it wasn’t like there were lots of spotlights shining on me. When “Rent” happened it was just part of my life anyway, and it was a way to do some work that I always wanted to do which was to reach out directly to young, gay people and give them some opportunity to have a mirror held up. I know that’s something that’s made a difference in their lives because they’ve told me. There have been people since – Ellen and Rosie and Nathan Lane and many, many more. I wasn’t the first, but I was in the vanguard.
Question: What do you think of outing?
Rapp: I think outing is an invasion of privacy. But I do believe that if you’re a political figure who’s actively campaigning for the dissolution of gay rights and you’re gay, I do believe that there’s a possible place then to be outed as a hypocrite.
Question: What’s the interaction with “Rent” fans like?
Diggs: It’s exciting when someone says something. Tracy has an interesting story where she was a “Rent” head herself, and that’s just been an amazing success story in itself. She auditioned for the show a bunch of times, loved the show, saw it a bunch of times, stood in a line that wrapped around the building, lost her voice and then got called back. Now she’s got her face on the “Rent” movie posters. It’s very exciting. What we all have to remind ourselves is that we were there once and how important and amazing it was to see people that we once looked up to. When I first met Denzel Washington or whoever it was very impressive and it really gave me a newfound energy to keep pursuing my dream, as corny as it sounds. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that.
Rapp: I always used to say back in the day when there was so much hype and attention that when people came up to us they came up to us because we really touched them and had been important in their lives. It’s a little different than if we had been a Spice Girl, not that there’s anything wrong with being a Spice Girl, but it’s different. That’s more about the flash and excitement of it. Not that they weren’t excited, but they were mostly coming up to say thank you for inspiring or moving them. It makes it sweeter.