Kylie Minogue creative director William Baker has given Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical a 21st-century makeover. Inspired by Puccini's La bohème, the musical transposes the plot to early 1990s New York where a community of East End squatters battle to fulfil their aspirations against the reality of rent demands and AIDS.
The death of the 35-year-old creator and composer from an aortic aneurysm shortly after the final dress rehearsal of Rent's debut transformed the musical into a cause celebre in New York, where it’s still running. Rent received its West End premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 12 May 1998 and closed on 30 October 1999 after a run of 18 months. It has since toured the UK extensively and had two limited West End return seasons.
Baker's version has been pruned down to a running time of just over two hours, with some Americanisms excised and references to HIV therapies updated. The production is designed by Mark Bailey, with musical supervision by fellow Kylie collaborator Steve Anderson.
At last night’s performance, three principals – Denise Van Outen, Siobhan Donaghy and Jay Webb – were off due to illness, but they were ably covered by CJ Johnson, Ruth Augilera and Craig Stein in the roles of Maureen, Mimi and Angel. Johnson and Stein joined fellow cast members Leon Lopez (pictured), Oliver Thornton and Francesca Jackson and associate director Clive Paget for the post-show discussion, which was chaired by What’s On Stage magazine editor Roger Foss.
For more photos and feedback on last night’s event, visit our Outings Blog. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On the role of understudies
CJ Johnson: I have been the understudy for Maureen and Joanne. Today I was in rehearsals and was literally jumping between parts. I was quite lucky with Maureen because Denise Van Outen couldn’t join us for a couple of weeks at the beginning of rehearsal so I got to spend a lot of time rehearsing her. I also got to form a good bond with all of these guys, especially Francesca Jackson, I want to marry her. I don’t play the part exactly the same as Denise would play it. I don’t play it too differently either because I don’t want to make the audience feel they have completely missed out by not seeing Denise. But I think that, as I am covering a celebrity, I have to do my own thing otherwise I would be impersonating her or trying to be her, which I’m not.
Craig Stein: I usually play Benny but tonight I was Angel. I think I play Angel quite differently to the principal cast member. There’s a thought process there which creates the character so I think my Angel is quite different.
On reworking Jonathan Larson’s original
Oliver Thornton: When we came to rehearsals, we tried to get something original. We had a lot of respect for the work of other people, but we wanted to keep out own identities. We had to keep the story the same, but also have our own voice.
Leon Lopez: The main concern from us and Jonathan Larson’s people was keeping the story and the meaning the same. That is what it’s all about; it’s the story that matters. Rent never seems to take off in Britain so we wanted to alter it a bit and make it much clearer. I’m a big fan of Rent myself. I went to see it eight years ago and was really moved by the story. We wanted that aspect to stay the same, but we also wanted to update other aspects.
Clive Paget: This is a show for young people so setting it now rather than ten years ago is more relevant to a younger audience. We like the older audience too, but we want to bring a new audience to it.
On developing the characters & costumes
Leon Lopez: The directors organised the changes to the music, but when it came to the characters we all got to work quite closely with William Baker. As we rehearsed, we all threw in ideas about how certain characters developed.
CJ Johnson: It was a really good process. We had so many meetings and discussions.
Leon Lopez: When I went to the first photoshoot, I turned up in a grey t-shirt and a leather waistcoat and they took a picture. Now they use that picture for my character. His clothes are basically mine. They used my style for him. When I went to a costume fitting, the clothes they gave me were the same as the ones I had just taken off.
CJ Johnson: That wasn’t what happened to me. I went to a costume fitting for Maureen thinking there would be a different costume to Denise Van Outen’s, but it was exactly the same costume. I couldn’t believe it because I don’t have her wonderful legs. I was so worried I would look awful.
On differing accents
Oliver Thornton: Some of us kept our accents to make it as organic as possible. Audiences need to know where they are so we decided to locate it firmly in New York, so as not to alienate anyone. A lot of us developed accents with the characters, but a couple of us hung on to our own accents. The main reason Mimi and Mark stayed British was to highlight that they were outsiders in somebody else’s world.
On coping with the story’s emotional ups & downs
Leon Lopez: At first I was crying my eyes out every performance. I remember one time staying up before I went to bed and just crying. I don’t so much do that now because I just had to stop. We got told to stop the tears.
Craig Stein: I cope by tapping into those strong emotions once and then going back to them for later performances. Once you know what that feeling is, it is easier to get back to it and recreate it.
On the show’s vocal score
Oliver Thornton: Rent is an intensely demanding show vocally. It’s not so much about the pop style or the rap style, the music is just very in your face whether you do pop or rock. The new music is quite organic. It was born out of a feeling of friends having fun, and it should communicate that feeling to the audience.
Leon Lopez: We haven’t talked about a cast recording yet, but before we even started rehearsals we put down a sort of guide track. It was before I had found my accent though so I sound like a real scouser. You should hear me say “metaphysic puzzle”. I’m really hoping they don’t release that!
On director William Baker’s friendship with Kylie
Leon Lopez: Kylie Minogue has seen the show more times than anyone else. She gives us tips on our performances. She even took notes for me the other day. Kylie is William Baker’s best friend so she would watch it and give us her honest opinion.
Oliver Thornton: I didn’t realise that her and William Baker were really friends. I knew they worked together but I didn’t realise how strong of a friendship they have.
Clive Paget: We all have someone who we get to come in when we are wondering what it looks like; William has Kylie.
For more photos and feedback on this event, visit our Outings Blog.