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25 years after the groundbreaking rock musical opened, it’s time for these Fresno State students to start paying ‘RENT’

Happy 25th anniversary, “RENT.”

Actually, we’re a year late, but let’s chalk that up to PTSD (Pandemic Time Schedule Disruption). For the new Fresno State production, the focus is on the silver-anniversary celebration of this groundbreaking production, which really did change musical-theater history.

It’s been a while since a full-fledged musical was presented at Fresno State, and when I sat down with six of the cast members in the show (along with director J. Daniel Herring) for a wide-ranging discussion, I could sense the excitement.

Their relationship to the material is fascinating. Not one of them (except Herring) was born in 1990, the approximate date the musical is set. It’s a wonderful thing their ages match those of the characters. (Compare that to the 30-something actors who reprised their stage roles in the 2005 movie, the way that many people have come to know “RENT.”) For the students, their perceptions of and passions for the show have been diffused through a generational filter. One generation passes a torch to the next. Even though the show remains tremendously relevant to them today, it is also, out of necessity, a piece of theater history.

Participating in our conversation were Kathryn Andres (Maureen), Alexis Elisa Macedo (Mimi), Ethan Magill (ensemble), Luke Nothstein (Roger), Nwachukwu Oputa (ensemble), and Josh Plowman (Mark). Note: Because of an illness (not Covid-19) that struck the cast, the original opening night performance, scheduled for Friday, May 6, was canceled. The musical opens Saturday, May 7, and continues through Saturday, May 14.

I edited our conversation for length and clarity.

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Donald: When do you remember first learning the music and the lyrics to ‘RENT’?

Nwachukwu: In high school. I would listen to it while I was washing dishes or doing chores around the house. The files I had gotten, I had stolen from my sibling. And I only had the first CD, and there are two CDs. So I only had the first act. One day, I discovered that there was a second act. And I was, like, Oh my gosh, there’s more?

Donald: So you went that whole time not knowing about “Seasons of Love,” which starts out Act 2.

Josh: I was introduced to the show in high schooI. I would listen to a few songs. Being around theater friends, ‘Seasons of Love’ was always a popular one to listen to. But it really wasn’t until getting the opportunity to do this production that I really became familiar with the rest of the score. And I think I personally have benefited from being able to learn the score in the context of building a character around it. That allowed me to connect to it so much more deeply than I think I would have just discovering it on my own.

Donald: When I say 1989 or early ’90s, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Alexis: I think of poofy hair. And the look and the aesthetic of the 80s. But honestly, the history behind it, what was going on within communities that weren’t widely talked about in school.


Related story: Win tickets to Fresno State’s production of ‘RENT’

Luke: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Kathryn: Obviously the AIDS epidemic. That’s the biggest thing that stands out to me, especially because the show is about AIDS. But also, the whole thing with Ronald Reagan. I don’t know the details, but I had done an ’80s show the semester prior, and I realized that Ronald Reagan is a prevalent issue in the ’80s. So that’s something that really stood out to me. And just seeing that gentrification was a thing, even back then. I mean, if it’s still an issue now, not much progress has been made.

Donald: It’s interesting that you bring up Ronald Reagan. What what do you know about Reagan and his connection to the AIDS crisis?

Ethan: He was very dismissive of the whole issue. I’ve done a lot of research about queer history. There’s one video that stood out to me of meetings at the White House during the start of the AIDS epidemic. And the reaction to it, and how dismissive it was because they assumed, “This is a gay disease, this isn’t affecting us, we don’t need to worry about it.” And I think about how much death could have been prevented if they cared about this from the start. It was hard to see and learn about. A lot of queer youth don’t know about the way people were treated back then and how vile it was.

Donald: It really was a different time. There was no cure. It was essentially like a death sentence. Then AZT came along. I know there’s the reference in the show for taking an “AZT break.”

Luke: I did not know anything about AZT before I really went deep diving into this, but it wasn’t that great. It helped because it was better than nothing, but at the same time, it was slowly killing you in the same sense. So it just a temporary solution, kind of like a Band-Aid.

Donald: Anyone else want to say anything about Reagan?

Kathryn: I just found it really disheartening to see a public figure weaponize a disease or a medical condition against a minority group and isolate them even more. And I sort of see parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s not the exact same thing, but I think about how the Asian American community was isolated during that time when Covid was at its peak, and how people would say “that’s the Asian virus.”

Alexis: Everyone thinks this is a period piece. But it has roots that are very relevant today. I think “RENT” is very relevant to what we’re going through today. We’re all human, and we’re all deserving to be here. And we’re all wanting the same things of love, and community and acceptance.

Luke: To tag onto that, how disheartening to see the person in charge of your entire country actively avoid talking about it, and not even saying the word AIDS. I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be just trash tossed to the side.

Donald: With “RENT,” I think about disease, and, of course, in “La Boheme,” the disease was tuberculosis. There’s something human — and it’s not the great side of being human — when it comes to illness and disease. It’s this tendency to want to separate yourself and scapegoat. Back then, if you had TB, you were shunned. And it’s so interesting that with this anniversary, we have this this other disease that popped in. Moving on: I wanted to toss in the idea of Bohemia, because of course, that’s a theme. Do you any of you consider yourselves Bohemians?

Josh: Not with that level of financial hardship. (Everyone laughs.)

Alexis: Heart and head circumstances won’t allow us to be. But there are moments where like, throughout this process, we’ve all been in spaces together and we just laugh and be and breathe. And it’s like, oh, my gosh, this is the community, these are the connecting threads that that we all want to be a part of. And it’s so wonderful that the show has organically created that amongst all of us.


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Josh: This is the first cast where I really feel like even outside of the show we’ve embodied these sorts of characters. The chemistry on stage is, I think, a direct result of how close we have become outside of just the circumstances of the show, and how we have gotten to know each other, and the utmost respect has for each other as an artist as a human being.

Alexis: I think another big part of that was not being able to be in a cast that was in person for so long. At callbacks, it was so amazing to see how supportive everybody was regardless of the result. We all really wanted to be here and tell this story, regardless of the cast list. And we wanted to have that connection and creation of community.

Nwachukwu: The ensemble and the principals are super close.

Ethan: I look forward to coming to rehearsal every day. I get to see all these amazing people again. We talked about that bohemian quality — we all like hanging out behind the costume shop area. It all has a relaxed, unstructured vibe. It’s similar to the show.

Donald: Now for a hint of controversy. Let’s talk about Benny, seen by many as the villain in “RENT,” the one who wants to yuppie up the neighborhood. How do you respond to people who basically say Benny isn’t such a bad guy? That he is the grown-up one, the responsible one, the guy trying to come up with a compromise, all that stuff. Wow, that hand went up fast.

Luke: We love Andrew Mickelson, who plays Benny very, very well. My character hates Benny purely because we all live together, and we had this big dream, he even references it in the song “You’ll See Boys.” In a weird way, I think that the hate is partly disdain and jealousy, because Benny did graduate to a higher degree of living. He married somebody who was rich. That is something that Roger and Mark probably really would want to do. And on top of that, he changed as a person because of the money as well. But that’s from our perspective. From a very normal- person perspective, he did everything that he was supposed to do. He worked for his goals, and he achieved them. And his friends kind of got left in the dust. And in that sense, it seems sad. But I don’t think that he’s a bad person for it. I think it’s honestly that just life happens.

Kathryn: OK, so just to throw something back at you. I don’t think any of the characters are good people or bad people. I think they’re just human. And all humans are flawed. I’ve done my research on the show as well. And I’ve heard a lot of controversy against certain characters. For example, my character, Maureen. She’s considered very selfish. If you take a look at it, she is protesting mainly for her performance base. It’s not necessarily for the goodness of her heart. I’m well aware of that. And I think that to condemn Benny solely for making his way into the world, I think that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. We live in a capitalist society. You have to find your way in the world. He just found a different way to survive. That’s why he can seem like the villain of the show, but I don’t think there’s a true villain in the show. Except AIDS. Character-wise, no.

Josh: One of my favorite things about the the structure of the show is that in relation to the eight principals, it gives almost everybody in the audience some facet of one of the characters to relate to. With Benny in particular, I think it is a vital perspective to have in the show, I think that for exactly the people who may be uneasy seeing the show, once they start settling in and understand like what sort of concepts are being presented in the show, I think having a character that is very, you know, sort of conservative leaning — about his goals, about monetary gain, and about climbing the ladder, doing what needs to do to get there. Something we do very well, assisted by the staging, is that the cast has a very real connection to Benny. We let the audience know that we still really love Benny, despite the fact that we kind of think he’s kind of a jerk.

Donald: OK, one more, and then we’ll move on.

Luke: I think Benny is every normal person. Everybody else in “RENT” is almost fantastical. I think that Benny represents the normal people. And in a slightly more depressing manner, I think he represents all of the people that gave up on their dreams. Yeah, you can see him as this jerk. But I feel like he even holds resentment against himself for giving up on all his dreams. And seeing that, even though his friends are not successful and they’re poor, they’re still doing exactly what they want to be doing. So there’s this disconnection of like, I’m here, and I’m lavishly living, and I’m not as happy as all of my extremely poor friends.

Donald: So this sort of ties in with what Kathryn was talking about gentrification when we started. It’s interesting that you don’t perceive there to be much of a difference between 2022 and 1991. And Luke is very insightful in talking about Benny being the normal one. It’s like he’s grown up. Maybe all of us have to give up some of our dreams. Even people who think they’ve attained their dreams realize later on, that it wasn’t as good as they were expecting.

Alexis: Benny had the opportunity to give up on his dreams. Roger and Mimi are forced to give up their dreams. Roger is not going to be able to be this big rock star and lead of a band. Mimi said she wants to go back to school. But her addiction is such a tight grip on her that she’s handing, you know, her drug dealer her dreams in exchange for a quick fix.

Donald: And it’s so much like life, really. Sometimes it just isn’t fair. Sometimes people like Benny wander into a great economic marriage transaction. Lives are totally changed.

Alexis: Traditionally, Benny is cast as a Black man. I think it’s really interesting that Andrew, being white, gives us a whole other dynamic of us fighting against him. We think: Of course, you have like this privilege to marry a rich woman and am trying to impress her father, because you sold out. You may be rich, but we’re rich in friendship. We’re rich in the community, in the connections that we have. And it’s interesting when Benny tries to come back and rekindle that. He says, but I was so lonely, surrounded by all of my money and my success and all the things society told me would make me happy and fulfilled.

Donald: Switching gears: “RENT” can be tough for a first-time viewer. Any time you have lyrics intertwined with each other, your brain can only take so much. If this were an opera, it would be supertitled. But we don’t do that with musicals. So what’s your recommendation for folks?

Kathryn: See it twice. (The rest laugh.)

Donald: Is it possible to walk in to “RENT” cold and be able to absorb it?

Luke: I think that honestly, from an audience perspective, watching it the first time is going to just be a cacophony of things coming at you. And I think you really just need to sit there and just experience it. There’s no way to go in more prepared, honestly, unless you’ve seen the show and know the show. I would love to see this show without having prior anything to do with it. I think that would be amazing.

Alexis: You’re so well introduced to everything you know where we are, who these people are, what their circumstances are. You just watch them live and the music just helps support that. It’s so raw and so real. My boyfriend knows nothing about “RENT.” I was, like “I want to be Mimi,” and he’s, like, “You get it babe,” and just knew nothing else. So he’s going in completely blank.

Donald: You haven’t filled him in?

Alexis: He doesn’t want to know. And so I’m, like, OK, cool, then you’re going in blank. But people in our lives are in the LGBTQ-plus community. The circumstances aren’t new to us. So I think being able to experience this and being able to relate to it in your own specific and unique way, as a new watcher, is going to be definitely be a fun experience.

Nwachukwu: With almost any musical, there are going to be things that you maybe miss or don’t really catch the first time. Just letting yourself experience it and just absorb what’s going on, you’re going to get something out of it.

Ethan: Some of the stuff, like the terminology with AIDS, usually it kind of clicks, you’re able to figure it out, even if you don’t realize it at first. But if you want to go in blind, then why reading this interview? We’re talking about the show.

Donald: Very true. That’s kind of meta.

Kathryn: There are a lot of concepts within the show that are very tough to deal with and tough to digest. But Jonathan Larson presents it in such a beautiful way. He opened the doors to how musicals can be. And I feel like with that in mind, going into this show, you’ll have such a fun time of realizing how progressive the show was.

Donald: Any final thoughts?

Luke: I think if you’re uncomfortable, you’re exactly where you should be.

Ethan: For me, it’s very important for especially queer youth to see it so we know our history. One of my mentors who recently passed, Jeffrey Robinson, always drilled into us that it’s important to recognize and know our history so we understand where we come from. I think this is a show that can teach us about that. Because it’s showing it to the audience. They’re experiencing it with us.

Alexis: Everyone has a window to “RENT,” whether you identify with the characters, or get to know all of us and how we maneuver through this world, and are just trying to survive on a minute-to-minute basis. And for people who have seen it, they’re going to say, “Oh my god, I know I’m going to cry at this part. I know I’m going to cheer this part.” Come in and be ready to experience “RENT” all over again. We haven’t been in a theater for a very long time. Fresno State hasn’t done a musical in a very long time. You know, come in this excited for this to be like a reunion.

Donald: That’s actually kind of a beautiful way to end it. Thank you so much. All this makes me excited to see “RENT” again.


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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