In these troubled times, it’s hard to imagine there being a better time to celebrate and honor the 20th Anniversary of Jonathan Larson’s epic musical, RENT. And that’s just what I had the chance to do this past week in San Francisco when I attended the opening night of its month long engagement at SHN’s Golden Gate theater.
The story of RENT is a powerful one, and I got the chance to talk to Katie LaMark, who stepped into the role of Maureen, originated by Idina Menzel (and boy, did she do it justice!). We chatted about how the show how translates 20 years later and the impact of telling a story like RENT in today’s political climate.
PopWrapped: RENT is such an iconic show, but this is not just any performance of RENT — this is the 20th Anniversary of the legendary musical. So let’s start by finding out, what’s it like to step into the 20th Anniversary tour?
Katie LaMark: It’s just such an incredible experience. I have nothing but positive things to say about it because it’s such a huge bench mark of any one of our careers. The thing that’s been the most exciting is that we’re a young cast, and, for a lot of us, this our first really big step into the industry and for it to be in a show that is so iconic and so important. To be a young performer who gets to step into a role in a show that is so socially aware and is so forward thinking — that just doesn’t happen very often. So for us to get to do this is really incredible. And, for it to be the 20th Anniversary and to see how audiences of all ages still respond so positively to this show after 20 years, well we’re on cloud nine. It’s just such a beautiful experience.
PW: You were in a production of RENT in college. Tell us who you played and how your perspective has changed for you since being in college today.
KL: I was Mark’s mother in Syracuse. I was a sophomore in college, and that was the last time I did the show. And college is a young experience. You have your foot out the door, but it’s still a very sheltered environment. And, even though I wasn’t in the role, I feel anyone who was in the show understands its full message from every character’s point of view because it’s just the nature of the show. But, being young, I didn’t know what it was like to move to New York and suddenly have nothing. Or to feel fear without any sort of safety net underneath you at all. And, to see that my life led me to a much more comfortable, of course, of what the characters experience in RENT when I moved to New York City and I’m away from my parents and I live with my friends … and the story makes sense to me now in a way it didn’t really before. I understand what these characters are going through, and I know how important it is to form a new family once you’re out on your own, and I feel like I’ve experienced those things now.
PW: How do you think RENT translates to audiences now, 20 years later?
KL: I think the reason RENT will always work, whether its 1996 or 2017, is because, while the climate of the show is specific to time period — we certainly don’t have the AIDS epidemic the way we experienced it in 1996, [and] so much research has been done — but the central theme of the show is not that people have AIDS; the central theme of the show is that sometimes life has to end for you sooner than you think and sometimes we lose people early in the journey, and what do you do to cope with that? And how does that look on each of these characters? How do their relationships change? How do they view themselves in the world having experienced loss? Whether that’s AIDS or whether that’s in 2016 and a mass shooting or a bomb has gone off and suddenly we lose people we love. So we still feel what these characters are going through because we still feel all the same things they do. The source is different, but the feeling will always be there. No matter what the age group is, they’re always going to have full visceral response to the show.
PW: In today’s current climate, there is almost more of a responsibility for artists to tell their stories. Do you feel an added responsibility telling this story in today’s world?
KL: It’s an exciting time to be with this show because we do feel a greater responsibility, and our hearts are really in the message of the show. What I think is really important about this time period for artists and why it is a call to arms is because the big thing we’re confronting in politics is and in the media is that people are so polarized about what’s going on in the world right now, it feel almost like everyone is just yelling into the void. Everyone is struggling to convince somebody that is totally on the opposite side of the fence than them that no one is hearing each other. And everyone is angry, and everyone is confused. A friend of mine (Riley Thomas) who is a writer said to me once that the reason he loves being an artist is because, when you create art, it’s the closest you can possibly get to sharing a consciousness with someone. That always resonates with me. When you sing a song, it touches somebody in a different way than speaking words to them. When you see someone experience something, when you feel and share someone else’s experience on stage or in a song or in a story, you it gets us a little bit closer to understanding each other in a climate where people are really trying to, and it’s not going very well.
As a regular theater goer, I have to say that seeing Katie and the rest of this amazing cast tell this story was one of the most memorable theater experiences of my life. The show continues at SHN’s Golden Gate theater through February 19 and then makes it way to Seattle. Check here for upcoming dates near you. After all, there’s no day but today…