After listening to one rendition after another of Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning score at the more than 140 auditions, the roles were cast, and an exceptional group of young performers began rehearsals for RENT. Here, the talented leads of RENT – Edward Daniels (Benny), Parker Drown (Angel), Emily Levey (Mimi), John Loughney (Mark), Katie McManus (Joanne), Juan Carlos Sanchez (Roger), and Weslie Woodley (Maureen) – take us on their personal journeys through auditions, getting the final call, playing their characters, and, finally, what they hope those sell-out audiences take away with them.
Let’s introduce you to the leads of Keegan Theatre’s brilliant production of RENT:
Edward (Benny): I’ve been in the DC area working the scene here for almost seven years now. I graduated from the UVA in 2002 and thought that I’d begin my career here in DC before venturing off to NYC or LA. I’ve had a great time here in DC getting to perform one show after another. This has been a busy year for me and I’m proud to end the year with RENT, which marks my first musical in seven years. I appeared in a remount of Charter Theatre’s Am I Black Enough, Yet? followed by an amazing experience with Round House Theatre in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This summer I participated in the Capital Fringe Festival in a unique play called Freakshow. I’ve also completed a number of small film projects this year and am looking forward to tackling more film work in 2010. Here’s my website.
Parker (Angel): I’ve been doing theatre ever since the 7th grade. My reading teacher (also the high school drama teacher) needed a small child for a Christmas skit that the drama class was doing for a holiday assembly, and thought that I would be perfect (It was either me or her 4-year-old grandson). I then started doing theatre camps in the summer and got my first professional job at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in The King and I when I was in 9th grade. Around the same time I joined the Young Columbians, which was directed by Toby Orenstein, and I was with the group for 5 years. The other students in it were incredibly talented and driven and with Toby’s passion and direction. We all saw it as an opportunity to grow, and we really pushed ourselves and each other.
I continued my training at Syracuse University as an acting major, and lucky enough to be in multiple shows there as well as to spend a semester in London. Following my time at Syracuse, I went to the National Theatre Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, and really found myself as an actor, and discovered what I was made of. Without sounding cheesy NTI was a magical place and I made lasting relationships and a very strong support group.
Emily (Mimi).I’m a proud native Washingtonian. The only television I was allowed to watch growing up were movie musicals, so it was programmed into me at a very early age. Now, I play children, animals, and dance in my underwear at various theaters in the DC area, including Adventure Theatre (You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown), Synetic Theater (Dante), Imagination Stage (Busytown), Signature Theatre (Merrily We Roll Along and The Happy Time), and Studio Theatre (Reefer Madness).
John (Mark): I haven’t had any vocal training and can’t read music…so, I’ve always just learned by listening and learning the notes by ear. I first got the theater bug my sophomore year of high school after hearing the RENT cast CD. I have a great fondness for the show and for the role of Mark. I don’t know what it is about Mark, but he has a big heart that I’ve always felt connected to.
Katie (Joanne): I grew up in Northern VA always wanting to be a dancer – it’s the only training I’ve ever had. I danced in my high school’s production of Evita, but that was my only musical experience until 2003, when I had my first singing audition (gasp!), and that show was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, directed by Duane Monahan at TAP. It was such a positive experience – I haven’t stopped since. Past favorite roles have included Lizzie in 110 in the Shade, Violet in Side Show, Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, Penelope Pennywise in Urinetown, Sarraghina in Nine, and Lin in The Great American Trailer Park.
Juan Carlos (Roger): My first love was music – early 90’s rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Soungarden, Alice in Chains, and many others). This Music spoke and reached me like nothing in my life at that point. The lyrics were raw and real and being an awkward teen (like most), this music answered all my questions. These artists inspired me to do what they do, so I started singing and playing guitar. I later started a band and made music I’m very proud of. Music is so much more than “just music” to me. It inspires me to act and to write. To put myself in someone else’s shoes or situations and understand them, experience them and perform to my best interpretation. I believe in making things as real as possible for the audience. This way hopefully they can experience some of what I’ve learned, because acting and performing is a constant learning process.
Weslie (Maureen): I caught the “bug” in high school and have been performing ever since. I have had a very eclectic career. I was a finalist on the WB Network’s “POPSTARS 2” which led me to move to New York and then LA. I got my feet wet in a little film and television work including “Meet The Fockers”, “Deadwood”, and “The Young and the Restless”, until I woke up one day and realized that I REALLY missed live theatre and singing. So the very next day – I auditioned for my first Equity show and was cast as Lucinda in Into The Woods at the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities in LA. It was like a light bulb went off. Soon after that – my husband and I returned to the DC area – and I can say that I am truly home. Since I moved back, I have worked at the Kennedy Center (Phantom Tollbooth), Studio Theatre (Jerry Springer the Opera), Signature Theatre (Les Miserables, Matt Conner’s Partial Eclipse and upcoming Sweeney Todd), and now Keegan Theatre in RENT.
Joel: What does RENT mean to you?
Edward: I saw RENT during my first visit to NYC on the night before an audition I had up there. I was simply blown away by the voices of the actors and the production quality of the show. I fell in love with the show and have been a fan ever since. As a working artist, I think that other performers would agree that this story is about the pursuit of one’s passion for art and self-satisfaction, no matter what struggles may stand in the way of that success. Love, reality, betrayal are all other elements within this story that help to drive that pursuit towards achievement in one’s craft, whether that craft be to create film, music, dance, or fashion.
Parker: Well, to quote myself in our promo video, “RENT is about the freedom to express yourself and to be who you are without making excuses or apologizing for it”. Also, I think RENT symbolizes the power of love and what it can do for the most broken people.
Emily: My grandmother took me to see the original production of RENT shortly after it opened on Broadway in 1996, and I fell in love instantly. I remember feeling completely shocked when I learned that other people knew RENT, and that it was not my own special discovery after all. It took a little while, but I’m more than happy to share it now.
John: I don’t think I quite realized it until I got into the show how much RENT is about friendship and community. I had the cast CD memorized inside and out, but once you step into the lives of these characters – you realize how much they rely on each other as one big family.
Katie: We were asked this question before, on the spot, and it caught me off guard, but I’ll have to say what I said before: RENT is freedom. It’s a gut reaction, but I think it rings true. RENT is freedom to be yourself – to love whomever – to feel love – to feel pain – to live passionately – and to let go.
Juan Carlos: Coincidentally, I’m being evicted from my apartment for unjustified reasons. So RENT reminds me of the hardships and bullshit one goes through in life to just stay afloat and keep on keepin’ on.
Weslie: It’s funny you asked this because we were asked to answer this question in an impromptu video interview and without thinking I said, “It’s about being who you are”. This story opened my mind at the ripe age of 15, but it amazes me how seeing the show with more mature eyes and life experience – the emotions and relationships resonate in a way that they never could have before.
Joel: Why did you want to play your role in RENT, and how do you relate to this character?
Edward: I auditioned with the hopes of nailing the role of Benny. Being that I’m a huge fan of RENT, I would have gladly accepted an ensemble role, as well. I am ecstatic to have the opportunity to be performing this wonderful show and great character during the holidays here in our nation’s capital!
I must say that I personally can’t find many similarities between myself and my character, yet I have met many an individual, of late, from whom I’ve drawn inspiration in preparing for this role. That inspiration includes those who value money, materials, and status to the degree that they can’t fathom the idea of putting in long hours in the theatre, in the dance studio, or in front of a blank canvas in order to explore their passion and find happiness in that exploration. I think those types of personalities are easy to find here in DC, and I’m enjoying the process of portraying them.
Parker: I think Angel is in many ways the heart of the show. When he’s gone, the group falls apart. He’s a performer through and through – and does everything he can to help people out and put a smile on their faces. I think I relate to Angel most in his values and the importance of friendship. Also, I wanted to play this part because I think we have differences too that are very challenging, and are going to help me grow as an actor/person.
Emily: I think the beauty of RENT is that all the characters are easy to relate to and love. They’re all dealing with giant life issues: money, illness, sex, love, all the good stuff. Who hasn’t had to deal with at least one of those things?
John: I love the character Mark. How could you not? It’s just been a dream role of mine since I was in high school. He has the best of intentions throughout the show, and probably the biggest heart of anyone I know.
Katie: Honestly, I was hoping to squeak by into the ensemble. I didn’t really think I could be Joanne. With that being said, I can’t imagine it any other way. I definitely relate to Joanne’s need for organization and structure. She wants to be in control, as do I. She also wants real love – nothing mushy, over-the-top or trite. And who doesn’t want that?
Juan Carlos: Well, being a musician I feel like I can relate to Roger a lot. The struggle that any artist goes through can get to them. I lost my mother to cancer days before rehearsals for RENT started, so this is for her and my father – who I hope are together again.
Weslie: I have wanted to play Maureen since I was 16 year old when I saw Amy Spangler in the First National Tour. I think it was actually a pivotal moment for me and I realized, “Wow, I wanna do this!”
Joel: What do you bring to the role that makes you the perfect choice to play your role?
Edward: I did mostly musical theatre at UVA and RENT marks my first musical in DC. This is the perfect role for me to jump back into the scene with. I think that Benny can easily come across as an arrogant and heartless guy who’s grown apart from his Bohemian friends, and sees nothing but dollar signs on his radar. The challenge that I still face as this production grows, is to present the honesty of his thoughts, such that with his first appearance most of my audience isn’t immediately turned off by his arrogance, yet find themselves open to his ideas of success and gentrification. I enjoy the challenge of playing the cliché character in a non-cliché way.
Parker: Well, you will have to ask Mark and Susan this one…but I feel that the only thing I can do as an actor is to really bring my honest self and truth to my character.
Emily: I don’t feel qualified to answer this, but I am so grateful for Mark, Susan, Kurt and Aaron for giving me the opportunity. I do bring with me a fierce hair-do!
John: Aside from the obvious things we all bring: the right look, sound and demeanor – I know Keegan always focuses on the acting. I know they were looking for skilled actors who can make these people real. In an intimate space like Church Street Theatre, there is no here any of us can hide any part of our performance. The audience sees our actions and reactions to everything. I know in the audition process, Mark and Susan tested our acting skills probably more than our vocal skills. Throughout the process, we were prompted to make these characters as real as possible and find the acting moments we’ve all passed over when listening to the CD. I think we all have done an undeniably good job at this.
Katie: Perfect? Hmm. Not really sure. I’m a perfectionist; I’m hard on myself; I can be very bossy and impatient (just ask John Loughney), and I think Joanne possesses all of those traits. But she is also very passionate and romantic, and I hope I illuminate that in her, too.
Juan Carlos: I was in a rock band for many years. I’ve had my share of crazy times good and bad. I’ve also dealt with the loss of loved ones a few times – which no one really knew about when we started rehearsing. So I think it’s a bit serendipitous that I got the role.
Weslie: I am a mess. Ask my husband.
Joel: What was the audition and callback process like for you?
Edward: At the first audition I sang the Collins part of “I’ll Cover You” because I love that song and knew that it was in my range. I was called back for Ensemble, Benny, & Angel and asked to sing the Angel part of “I’ll Cover You” and a section of Benny’s solo, “You’ll See.”
I first heard of the RENT audition about a month or more before the two day open call began. I hadn’t vocalized much as I had just finished a run of Cuckoo’s Nest and Freakshow, a couple of straight plays. Though my college vocal coach would never recommend this, I learned music from the score via the Original Broadway Cast CD recording. I think that most of the 140 or more people that auditioned for RENT were and are huge fans of the show, and knew most of the score anyway. Though I know most actors in the area by now, I was in a totally different pool of talent, as I was introduced to a number of musical theatre faces whom I’d never seen before. Aaron, the accompanist, and I were a little off tempo, but I sang and left the theatre feeling pretty confident. The callback notice came a few days later. I was first ask to sing for Angel, which I felt totally unprepared doing, as my range wasn’t quite that high, especially since I hadn’t been in vocal coaching since college.
My dance callback was a disaster. I couldn’t wait to sing for Benny. Along with Michael Robinson and a few others, we learned a section of “You’ll See.” I felt very comfortable singing that song and actually volunteered to sing first during that part of the callback. I felt confident in my voice, yet hoped my dancing, which was really bad and showed a lack of training since my last dance class seven years ago, wasn’t too big of a distraction to the auditors. After that callback, there was a bit of a gap before I received another callback notice. I received the final callback email and headed to the Church Street Theatre one last time. This time, the men were asked to sing the male solo in “Seasons of Love”. I absolutely love that solo and sang out that day. I was confident enough to head home and immediately post on Facebook that I, “…just tore that song up!”
Parker: As I said, I actually went to the auditions singing for Mark. I kept asking people who I should audition for Mark or Angel? And the board was split 50/50 so I sang Mark’s opening for “La Vie Boheme”. It went really well, and I was called back for Mark, which went well again, but as I left, Kurt Boehm ran out and asked me to stay and dance/sing for Angel. So I ran to my car and changed into more appropriate clothing (which luckily was in the back of my messy car). I had a blast, and was surprisingly less nervous going up for Angel than I was for Mark…Then at my final callback (for Angel now) we sang the entirety of “Today 4 U” and were told “Ok – so we have a table and stairs for you and we’d like to see you use them”. So I laughed and said, “alright” and just went for it. I ended up using my music as a fan, strutted the full length of the stage and jumped right up onto the table and danced my little white butt off. I guess they liked what they saw.
Emily: I sang an excerpt from “Another Day” because I think it’s the central message of the show (and it’s also one of my favorite parts of the show to sing). I was nervous and excited. And nervous. And SO excited.
John: At the first audition I sang Mark’s opening of “La Vie Boheme” all the way up to the point where the ensemble comes in chanting “La Vie Boheme”. I can remember the production team jumping in and singing that part, and I just stopped at my 16 bar limit. I left the stage thinking, “John!!! You should have kept going!!! They were singing with you, idiot!!!” Ah well.
For the callback, my aim was to land a role in the ensemble. I had no idea what to expect from anyone. There were, I think, 8 of us up for Mark, and truthfully, I don’t remember much. I remember thinking I needed to throw caution to the wind and just go for it. I came back for a second callback, it was down to me and one other actor. That’s where I saw how close I was to getting a dream role of mine – and just went for it.
Katie: I sang “Take Me or Leave Me” — I think we all did. Auditions are never fun, and I always overthink them. I honestly try, though, to go into them without fear. I have to remind myself that there are other things to be afraid of, and that usually puts me at ease.
Juan Carlos: I sang “One Song Glory” for the first audition. I really just wanted to rock out as best I could and try to give Mark and Susan what they wanted. I was the only Roger at my last callback, which threw me a bit.
Weslie: We all sang from the show. The first few were “Take Me or Leave Me” and the final callback was “Over the Moon”. I am always nervous when I walk into an audition room. I think it is the most nerve wracking thing we do as actors. Preparing was not very difficult since I knew just about ever word to the entire score.
Joel: When did you find out you had the role and where were you when you got the call?
Edward: I believe that a week or so passed after the final callback. I was out for a run one day when my cell rang, Keegan Theatre calling, offering me a role in RENT. For the first time ever, upon receiving a casting call, I cried. The magic of this show began on that sunny day, for me. It’s been an adventure ever since.
Parker: I was actually at home in my room when I got the call a few days later. I was jumping for joy and then had to wait to find out if Nick Lehan and MaryLee Adams had been cast in the show as well. All three of us went to the auditions together and sang right in a row for the first auditions, and I think getting to do this show with them has made it even better.
Emily: I was running errands, and I cried.
John: When Mark Rhea called me and offered me the role – I was at work and I thought he was joking with me on the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I had a bunch of co-workers cheering for me as I hung up the phone. They all get pretty involved in my theater life. Ha Ha Ha!
Katie: I was very lucky as I think I was one of the first to be cast, so I knew I was Joanne before there was a second round of callbacks for other characters. I was sitting at my desk job, and Mark [Rhea] casually emailed me with the offer. That’s how he is, and I love it.
Juan Carlos: At the callbacks, after I sang my last song, Mark asked me to step outside and talk with him, and he told me they wanted me for the role. I was so exited. I had a feeling from the start that this was going to be a great experience, and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.
Weslie: I got the call from Mark a few days later and was so excited!
Joel: Please set up your big numbers in the show, and tell us how you relate to it.
Edward: Benny’s big number in the show is “You’ll See” where he walks back into his old apartment and hounds his former roommates for unpaid rent and explains his plans to redevelop their East Village neighborhood. Benny also has two other short solos where he ‘ruins the party’ for the rest of the bohemian gang. Just before “La Vie Boheme” at the end of Act I, he tries to make the group understand that their lifestyle is pretty much a dream in their heads. At the top of Act II, he interrupts their New Year’s Eve fun by trying to sell them further on his redevelopment idea, and also to blow the whistle on the fact that he and Mimi had a connection that no one knew about, and that she’s recently come to him to seek help.
Parker: “Today 4 U”- This is Angel’s ultimate performance piece. He bursts in like you have never seen him before and does a whole song and dance number in order to put a smile on Mark and Roger’s faces. He’s never met them before but is willing to give them his “hard earned” money to help them out. I think this is the true aspect of Angel that if we all had more of it would make the world that much better.
“I’ll Cover You” – This is probably my favorite song to do and to listen to on the recordings…simply because it is the ultimate love duet. And who doesn’t love a love duet?
“Contact” – Angel’s final words are in this song, and though it is full of angst and pain, all he talks about is love… and I think that is the power and heart of Angel’s message throughout the show.
Emily: “Light My Candle”, which happens early in the first act, is when Roger and Mimi first meet (although he’s seen her dance before, they’ve never actually met face-to-face). And since the entire rest of the play is the unfolding of the various love stories that are set up in the beginning – it’s a pretty important moment. It’s also Mimi’s introduction to the audience. On paper it might seem that I wouldn’t relate at all: I’ve never been an addict or not been able to pay my heating bill for example (although I hate being cold, so usually that’s one of the first ones I pay). But I’ve definitely experienced “lust at first sight,” which is what I think Mimi experiences in this scene, and she goes for it.
“Out Tonight” is when the audience gets to Mimi’s “act” at its finest. She’s met this attractive guy who has shown her a tiny bit of kindness, so she’s doing the only thing she knows how to do: throw herself at him in an over-the-top, out of control way. I think it’s always worked for her before, so the fact that it doesn’t this time is what ultimately sets this guy apart from the others. I’ve definitely put myself out there all the way, and been disappointed and even humiliated (most human beings have). “Out Tonight” happens during that moment of total confidence and possibility that she’s talked herself into, and I’ve definitely been there. Also, it’s a whole lot of fun to howl and swing on the scaffolding.
“Without You” comes in the second act after Mimi and Roger are past the honeymoon stage (which didn’t last long for them) and have been fighting. He walks out on her. It shows the passage of time for the play’s three main love stories (Collins and Angel, Maureen and Joanne, and Mimi and Roger). I think it perfectly captures that feeling of being totally alone in your heartbreak. The entire world keeps going but it all means nothing without the person you love. Anyone who’s ever gone through a breakup or lost someone they love can relate to that feeling. I think the beauty of Larson’s writing is that even though the circumstances these characters are in are not necessarily universal, the feelings they experience most definitely are.
John: Mark has a few big numbers. The opening “Rent”, “Tango Maureen”, “La Vie Boheme”, and “What You Own”. I’d have to say that “Rent” and “Tango” are two favorites for me. The opening of the show as Mark are a little stressful for me. As the narrator – there is a lot that I need to explain, and the ‘Tune Ups’ can be hard musically. Once the cast rushes is for ‘Rent’ it’s beyond exhilarating and the show kicks into high gear. It’s just fun to rock out with everyone. Also, ‘Tango Maureen’ has always been a favorite of mine and it’s an added bonus to sing with my best friend, Katie. The tension between Joanne and Mark is pretty natural for us.
“Tango Maureen” is Joanne and Mark’s first meeting. Joanne has taken over Mark’s previous duties of producing Maureen’s upcoming show, but she isn’t as technologically savvy as Mark. But while Maureen has put Joanne in charge, she’s called Mark for back -up. They’re both a little sour upon meeting, but that changes as the song progresses. In real life, John Loughney (Mark) is my roommate, so this scene is rather fun for me. =)
“Take Me or Leave Me” is another duet – Maureen’s and Joanne’s big fight. It’s highly energized, somewhat aggressive and ferociously belted. So much fun! Weslie makes it so easy to do this scene well.
Juan Carlos: In the Opening song “Rent” we establish the angst and the struggle that is the core of the story. In “One Song Glory” often there is no applause from the audience. I don’t think it’s because they don’t enjoy it, but rather I think it’s because people don’t know what to do at the end. The song is very heavy and raw, and I think it draws in the audience more into the struggle and reality of living with AIDS, and it’s the desperation of Roger and his friends, so people are left feeling something more somber than uplifting. “Light My Candle” strikes a lighter tone and it introduces Roger and Mimi’s new found relationship, and the need for love in both of them, and also shows how afraid Roger is to love and be loved again. “Another Day” brings out Roger’s darker side. This song shows how afraid and numb he is. It’s probably my favorite song to sing. The end is very powerful to me. “I Should Tell You” is a great love song. Anyone who falls in love has to put behind any fears, or else it will never work – no matter how hard it is to put behind. Love, we know, is the greatest.
Weslie: “Over the Moon” is my performance art piece. At first glance, it seems to be a silly song protesting the eviction of the homeless from the “tent city” in the lot. But I spent a lot of time dissecting it for myself. I think the song is using symbolism to show recent events. I think that the cat is a metaphor for Maureen (she later dresses up like a cat for New Year’s Eve) and the cow for Joanne, “ever since the cat took up the fiddle, that cows been jumpy”. Then they are representative for Mark and Roger, “and the dish and the spoon were evicted from the table”. The dog is representative for Benny, which is ironic because dogs are known for their loyalty, and yet Benny abandoned them. Milk is symbolic of seeking nourishment, and the fact that the cow is forbidden to produce milk and can only produce diet coke, symbolizes their repression. The cow tells her that the only way out is up, she is saying that the only way out of New York is success. I don’t know if this is exactly what Jonathan Larson was thinking, but I felt that I needed to make the entire monologue specific for myself.
“Take Me or Leave Me” is probably one of the most fun things I’ve been able to do on stage. Katie McManus just kicks so much ass. I love her. The song is your classic fight in a relationship where you say, “I’m the best thing that ever happened to you”. I think we have all been there. I love how there is competition in the song both vocally and lyrically. It is just so much fun to put your guts out there like that every night.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Church Street Theatre after watching RENT?
Edward: I think that the show’s anthem, “Seasons of Love” pretty much sums up the many different stories and relationships that occur in life. An audience should leave this piece with a clearer understanding of their own life or someone else’s life that they may not have understood before. Life is this short, precious thing that brings us together, tears us apart, makes us laugh, cry, is predictable at times, unpredictable a majority of time, yet is something that we all experience in our own, unique way. What gets each of us through the ups and downs, in the end, is filling this little space with love and compassion towards one another. Act up, show some love!
Parker: I want them to leave the show thinking – thinking about each other, acceptance, and about what we can do as a community to help each other. The show is about love and I would like the audience to be reminded of the power that love has.
Emily: I hope they come away moved and uplifted, and with the songs in their heads for weeks afterwards.
John: I hope they leave with the obvious message of ‘No Day But Today’ and to live every moment as if it’s your last. It’s a message I certainly hope I carry with me long after this show is over. I also hope we’ve pulled at their heart strings some and showed the biggest RENT fans a new side of the show.
Katie: I genuinely hope they will have enjoyed the story, the music, and the beautiful characters they’ve encountered.
Juan Carlos: I want them to feel like they took the journey with us, and that this is the best RENT they’ve seen!
Weslie: I hope that they see that RENT is still relevant today and that the message “No Day But Today” is a great reminder.