The Williamstown Musical Theatre Company are buzzing with enthusiasm to tackle one of Broadway’s biggest, and most heartfelt hits; Rent and it will be Running from the 10th to the 25th November, at the Williamstown Mechanics Institute Theatre.
Set in New York’s East Village, and in the throes of the 1990’s AIDS epidemic, Rent explores love, friendship and the struggle to survive. Accompanied by a punchy pop rock score, ‘Rent’s intense energy makes for a thrilling ride as you are guided through the drama by a cast of bohemian characters. We sat down with the cast and production team of WMTC’s RENT to find out the joys and challenges of bringing this show to life, and the reasons why (as the show’s MD Stacey-Louise Camilleri puts it), “It ain’t no 42nd Street! This show is going to shake up your world for two and a half hours straight.”
For the cast, it is a dream come true to perform a show they love so dearly. Tyson Legg, who plays film maker and narrator Mark Cohen, describes his first experience with the show: “I was in my mid-teens and just discovering musical theatre when Rent was becoming the huge phenomenon it became. It was definitely the first musical I ever obsessed over, and my double-CD that I probably purchased at a Sanity store was played at every party I went to for about two years or so.” Jye Cannon, who plays Angel Schunard describes the profound impact that discovering RENT as a kid had on him “…it changed my life from that moment. To know that singing – my only hobby as the non-sporty son – could be used to develop and express incredible stories … I was inspired. It left a real impact, and I thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do!”
WMTC’s Mimi Marquez (Morgan Heyes) voices her passion for the show, describing it as, “Special. Incredibly special! It is something you can find a connection with no matter who you are, and whatever may be going on in your life!”
But, with such well known characters from the Tony Award winning show, and the movie adaptation that followed, also comes a certain pressure. When we asked Frank Kerr (Roger Davis) what challenges there are in presenting Rent, he replied “All of them. People expect a lot from Rent so I just don’t want to disappoint them but I also am enjoying finding my own way to do it.”
Legg adds “I think the pressure comes from the fear of being just another Mark in the long list of amateur productions of Rent. I hope my Mark is unique enough to be memorable, good or bad.”
Cannon has unique challenges to contend with playing Angel: “One of those was conquering the goddamned heels… As well as that, just maintaining that ‘heart’ and not overcompensating who I am to achieve that in any disingenuous way.”
Rent’s heart reflects strong social messages about human connection and commentary on art: “It’s about real people, with real issues and the realities of living in a society that mostly ignores those at the bottom of the social ladder” says Legg. And of course, it has strong themes of inclusivity and love in the face of adversity. As Cannon suggests, “Facing issues such as socioeconomic prejudices, severe poverty, terminal illness and crises of loss and grief… Rent is, in short, the relatable story of both the struggles and blessings of the artist’s life, and the lifestyle of the artist community.”
Maintaining the heart of the show is a huge motivation for the cast and they acknowledge it is a big undertaking. With Heyes stating that the “Biggest challenge would probably be bringing truth to the show. It isn’t one you can just fake.”
Frank describes it as being ‘… a hugely vulnerable piece, so accessing all those feelings has been hard, also it’s a big sing, so that’s hard too!
Notwithstanding the big expectations, there is also Rent’s memorable rock score to master, which borrows themes from Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ (on which it is also loosely based). Music director Camillieri is excited to share it with an audience, reflecting honestly that, despite its accolades, “Rent is a show that divides people. They either love it or hate it. And most people who hate it, have seen the film… I’ve taken much inspiration from the ‘2000 version’ of Rent and injected it into the sounds the band for our production creates. The result is a much thicker, rock-ier sound. We want to give people the best possible production of Rent they can see, so that they will see the show like we all do – it’s a true masterpiece of its time.”
Working with Camillieri are Stuart Dodge (Director) and Ashley Tynan (Choreographer). “The work those two have put into this show is unlike any other production of Rent I’ve seen. Stuart’s set design is fantastic and Ashley’s choreography is really exciting. She’s found ways to infuse chorography into this show without it becoming ‘dance numbers’. I’m so proud of both of them’, says Camillieri.
The cast working so closely together onstage has translated into offstage friendship, that Heyes says help them with their mission to bring authenticity to the piece. “It’s been incredible working with such a supportive and talented group of people who care for one another! We have bonded to bring truth to the show but we have also created a little close knit theatre family.” The kindness and professionalism of all involved as well as a fondness for their theatre and rehearsal space the Williamstown Mechanics Institute are phrases that are reiterated again and again.
So, in a show brimming with feeling, backed by an outstanding cast and crew, what are the numbers you just can’t afford to miss?
Heyes: “The song ‘Another day!’ Such an intense piece between Roger and Mimi but when the company join in at the end, so strong and powerful! Love love love!”
Legg: “It’s the quiet, reflective stuff in ‘Halloween’ and ‘Goodbye Love’ that I enjoy performing the most.”
Cannon: “I reckon ‘You Okay, Honey?’ is close to taking the cake, as for me, it is the moment we meet and fall in love with Angel for being both genuine and playful simultaneously. The cheekiness helps, too!’
Kerr: “I really enjoy ‘Another Day’ and ‘What You Own’… but to be honest there isn’t much in the show I don’t love’
Camillieri: “’Contact’. I challenge anybody to top the version that’s in this production. Holy hell.”
Rent opens at the Williamstown mechanic Institute on the 10th of November. Due to popular demand, WMTC has added an extra performance in the season for Wednesday 22nd November at 8pm.