Two original stars look back as last encore nears for 'Rent'The back story of the "Rent" musical reads like an epic: a bittersweet tale marked by the sudden death of its young creator, who leaves behind a cultural phenomenon.
A major chapter of this extraordinary chronicle comes to a close this week as the national tour, starring two of the production's original Broadway stars, ends in Sacramento.
Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who both journeyed with "Rent" from downtown workshops through off- Broadway sensations and then uptown stardom, head the touring cast coming Wednesday to the Community Center Theater for a five-day, eight-performance run.
Jonathan Larson's musical play recasts Puccini's opera "La Bohème" to a world of young bohemians living under the spectre of HIV and AIDS. "Rent" reinvigorated the Broadway musical scene, making it viscerally contemporary in both subject matter and music.
For his writing, Larson was posthumously awarded every significant award imaginable, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony awards for best musical, best book of a musical, and best original score.
Pascal joined the show as HIV-positive rock musician Roger Davis, which wasn't a great stretch for the New York-based actor. He had been scuffling around in New York rock bands for years when a friend from high school, Idina Menzel, told him about "Rent" auditions.
"She had already been cast and told me they were having trouble casting this other part," Pascal said from Toronto where "Rent" was playing.
The creative team had opened casting to people who didn't necessarily have traditional theater experience. After four rounds of auditions, Pascal got the job.
"Once the show began, it seemed very clear to me that this was a place I belonged and never knew it," Pascal said.
Pascal admits that his skills were limited back then, but right for what he was doing.
"I had to learn everything really. What made it work, I think, was I had the right instincts," Pascal said. Specifically, he knew how to sing and had a presence on stage.
"At the time, for that performance, in that show, for all the right reasons, my abilities, whatever they were, were enough."
Larson's era-defining 1996 rock musical about struggling artists living in New York's East Village connected with audiences in a way few works do. After numerous workshops and seven years in development, "Rent" became a sensation. It played for 12 years on Broadway alone, spawning numerous international tours, a feature film and a Broadway revival.
Playwright Larson never saw a public performance of what the world knows as "Rent" because he died of an aortic dissection on the morning of Jan. 25, 1996, the day his musical opened its off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Pascal and his castmates became the toast of the town in 1996 as "Rent" won over critics and audiences.
"To be really famous in New York City for something everyone loves is a really cool thing," Pascal said.
California Musical Theatre artistic director Glenn Casale, who saw an early off-Broadway performance, echoed many audience members' feelings about the show.
"It changed the way I look at theater. It changed my excitement about theater. 'Rent' touches you in such an internal way. It has messages that are bigger than life."
Also on that original ride and back on tour with Pascal is Anthony Rapp, who plays Mark Cohen, a documentary filmmaker and narrator of the play. Rapp and Pascal agree that this residual wave of "Rent's" success has been a happy surprise.
"We both said in some ways it's better," Rapp said.
"Before, it was incredible to be a part of the original cast and be a part of that whole experience. It was so crazy and hectic, and so much was happening it was like being on the inside of a hurricane."
And Larson's shocking, untimely death pushed the intensity of the situation for everyone involved.
"Everything we all went through with the original cast, there will never be anything like that again; there's a bond there that will always exist," Rapp said. He wrote about those experiences and dealing with his mother's cancer in the book "Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical 'Rent.' "