4/19: RENT Controlled ‘n Ready

Original Broadway cast members of RENT, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp perform both solo and in tandem in a Saturday night concert event at Monmouth University. 

We spoke of many things — of baseball (esp. the Cubs and the Mets) and Spider-Man; of a band named XTC, and what it’s like to have a father in law who won the Nobel Prize. We even found a few moments to speak of a little phenom called Rent.

Illinois native Anthony Rapp was already a seasoned veteran of the stage (at age ten, he played the title role in the ill-fated musical The Little Prince) and screen (Adventures in Babysitting, Dazed and Confused) — and Adam Pascal was a native New Yorker whose only stage experience was in fronting a band called Mute — when the two became castmates (and their characters became roommates) in a show that did nothing less than change the face of latter-day Broadway.

Set in the once-forgotten but fast-transitioning landscape of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the AIDS-ravaged 1980s, Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus borrowed the framework of Puccini’s La Boheme for a production that would win a fistful of Tonys AND a Pulitzer (not to mention a whole new generation of diehard Rentheads), fueled by real grass-roots buzz and the mind-bogglingly sudden death of its creator on the eve of the show’s first preview.

In the original cast of the 1996 Off Broadway premiere and its Broadway incarnation later that same year — a cast that also boasted Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Law & Order‘s Jesse L. Martin — Pascal played Roger Davis, the HIV-positive musician, with Rapp as Mark Cohen, Roger’s filmmaker friend and roomie (the two roles were riffs on Boheme‘s Rodolfo and Marcello).

The actors would eventually go their own ways — Anthony would come out and advocate tirelessly for LGBT rights, while Adam would “marry up” and form a partnership with playwright and superstar cookbook author Cybele Pascal (prominent in the food allergy community, and daughter to the Nobel-winning Eric Chivian). And, while the show would launch the Broadway careers of the two young stars in earnest (Pascal would play lead roles in the Elton John-Tim Rice Aida, in David (Bon Jovi) Bryan’s Memphis, and in the 1998 revival of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret; Rapp would essay the title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), it would also draw the Adam & Anthony team back together for the 2005 film version, and a 2009 tour.

On Saturday night, April 21, the colleagues reunite once more, in a concert presented under the name Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp: Original Stars of Broadway’s RENT — a touring production that comes to Monmouth University‘s Pollak Theatre for one 8pm show.

The three-part program is set to kick off with Pascal performing with his three-piece combo “Me & Larry,” a project that finds the singer adding his powerhouse vocals (as well as his underrated guitar and bass skills) to pianist Larry Edoff’s bold sound in a set that draws from their album Blinding Light, with some eye-opening new takes on some familiar showtune standards, to boot.

Rapp, who documented his own voyage through life and Rent in his memoir Without You, will be performing a mix of savvy originals and surprising covers with his own five piece band — and the two co-headliners team up again for the concert’s climactic segment, an interlude in which the stars share stories and signature songs from that most game-changing (and career-defining) of shows.

UpperWETside spoke to Adam and Anthony separately, and in that order. What follows is a merry mashup of those back-to-back phone conversations.

upperWETside: So what kind of a format can we expect to see at the Monmouth show? Do you guys perform separate sets and duet at the end, or are you both onstage throughout?

ADAM PASCAL: My set comes first, then Anthony does a song with me, which leads into his set…then I come out again for the last segment. We were toying around with this sort of set-up after the 2009 tour; I asked him to combine forces.

ANTHONY RAPP: Adam goes on first because his set-up’s simpler…my sound’s bigger, so it made more sense for me to go on second. I do a song with him between our sets, so we have that tag-team thing going.

Adam, I gotta say that your Me & Larry project really has a sound all its own…it’s a pretty refreshing alternative to the way other people continue to approach Songbook-type material; you know, So-and-So Sings Gershwin, with the Hi-Fructose Corn Syrup Orchestra. Since I’m pretty unfamiliar with Larry’s work, clue us in on how your collaboration came together…

ADAM: Well, Larry’s an amazing writer and producer and musician, who’s got a successful music teaching business in Westchester County. We met when I lived there; at the Equinox gym in Scarsdale. We exchanged albums, and got to talking!

I grew up as the singer of a five piece rock group, and I guess I grew out of it, or at least wanted to explore something a little bit different.

Well, I was very impressed by what you guys did with “Maria” from WEST SIDE STORY. Especially since I have to admit that I would not have put another version of “Maria” on the short list of things that the world needs more of…

ADAM: Neither would I, believe me! No, with a song like that you either have to find something new inside of it or just move on to something else. I’m really excited about the way it came out for us…we’re thinking of recording the song, but not to sell; we would just give it away. I’m not pretending to charge for it…the entire world of the recording industry has changed so dramatically in just a few short years.

Anthony, your set is performed with you fronting a full rock band…is this more or less the ALBINO KID band project that I’ve read mention of?

ANTHONY: That was just a fun name we used for what we do, but it’s actually not something in circulation. Dan Weiss, who was a member of the original Rent band, is the music director and plays keyboards.

We’re doing a mix of songs from my album; songs from this show that I did where I’m a character who’s obsessed with Queen, who sings in the style of Queen…and we do things like “Losing My Religion,” and a song from Hedwig. We’re adding another cover or two…Talking Heads, Crowded House.

Anything by XTC, my personal fave ‘New Wave” band? I was particularly interested to find out you were a big fan of Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge.

ANTHONY: Those guys were a huge influence to me melodically, but I’m not sure of any one song I’d put out there above all the rest!

And Adam, correct me me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t your name attached to a project where you were trying to bring the music of Queensrÿche to the stage?

ADAM: It’s true! I’m a huge fan of the Operation: Mindcrime album, and Geoff Tate has been a huge influence. I know there’s a way to do this!

Now, it’s probably not considered hyperbole to suggest that you both played a real part in shaping modern-day Broadway…and yet both of you have sort of expressed the same opinion; that there aren’t really any shows out there for you right now…

ADAM: Because of the financial aspects of the business, it’s tured to jukebox musicals and movie adaptation…recognizable commodities. To me, it’s antithetical to what the artistic process should be.

I’m 41 years old…I like to think I have a youthful appearance…but I don’t live in New York, so I can’t just pop in and out of shows. When I did Memphis I thought that I could bring something to the table…to me, there’s almost something sacred about Broadway, and I’d rather wait to do something great.

ANTHONY: I don’t know if there’s anything that feels like a great fit out there…I haven’t seen The Book of Mormon yet, though. I sympathize with anyone who’s involved with that show…I know what it’s like to get asked for tickets all the time!

I’m not interested in doing a show just to do a show. Any time you take on a role, you have to bring a lot to it. Right now I’m working on the stage adaptation of my book. It’s a one man show, with a band…I was just in Korea developing it there.

You’ve never been shy about your personal connection to your RENT role, and how the stuff you had been going through…living in the East Village, dealing with your mom’s cancer and friends with HIV…kind of informed your work in the show. Did it continue to help you as an actor in your later projects to have connected so deeply with that signature role…or is such an experience not something you’d recommend for just anyone?

ANTHONY: I’m not saying that the material you perform has to have THAT degree of resonance, but…something has to resonate. Rent just reflects so much of my life, coming when it did…my mom had just passed away, so I felt very close to the world that my character lived in.

Adam had never done a Broadway show, and he was also encouraged to get close to the character of Roger…the distance between us and our roles was tissue-paper thin. The degree of openness, honesty, truth that Adam brought to his work is amazing.

ADAM: Everybody approaches it differently. Roger is very similar to me, but I never felt comfortable calling myself an actor until Cabaret. It took me to another level, other than being ‘that rocker guy on Broadway.’ I like to look into other sides of myself; roles that are completely different from myself. I love immersing myself in a character; I love the costumes, the makeup. To disappear into a character is the biggest compliment.

You guys also made your mark at the beginning of a transitional era in the theater, in the greater culture, when the online component, the social media element really changed the way shows are made and marketed and even experienced by the audience. What are some of the ways in which you think the Broadway world has been impacted?

ADAM: Unfortunately, people need to Tweet and Facebook every detail of a show while it’s going on.  Regardless of what you think of that, it’s put critical control back into the hands of the audience, and removed a lot of the influence from the old circle of critics. Ben Brantley and the others have a right to their opinion, but to have three or four guys with the power to make or break a show was never a good thing.

ANTHONY: In the early years of Rent the presence of online chat forums started really having an impact. It was really cool, as an artist, to see what people were saying about the show, and to engage with them directly. I would think that a really savvy producer might take people’s responses into consideration to a degree; use that sort of response and interest for the betterment of a show.

I did Feeling Electric in 2005, which became Next to Normal, and everyone made good use of Twitter by that time. I felt like I did brilliant work in that one…it was extraordinary to be a part of it.

Well, you were in on the ground floor of that show, just like you were with RENT. There’s probably no substitute for that kind of perspective on a project…just as, I’m sure you’ll both agree, no subbing for the live-on-stage experience in a perpetually uncertain business.

ADAM: I come from the age when ‘live’ was LIVE; a time before singers enhanced their concerts with AutoTune and pre-recordings. At the end of the day, the ‘live’ thing keeps the business from going under…it’s part of our cultural lexicon. People have a hunger to see the actors in front of them…you HAVE to come out and see this.

Tickets for Saturday’s 8pm concert ($37 – $47) are available right here.