It has been nearly 25 years since RENT opened on Broadway, redefining the landscape of American musical theatre, and sharing the eternally relevant message of appreciating the gift of friendship, community, and unconditional love. This week, this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning musical returns to Boston in an unforgettable 20th anniversary touring production.
Kelsee Sweigard, who has been with the company of RENT since summer 2019, shared her thoughts on portraying the iconic Maureen Johnson, as well as being part of a show that resonates with millions of people across the globe in life-changing ways.
In 2019, RENT is arguably the most recognizable work by Jonathan Larson. However, this may soon change, as his other rock-musical tick, tick… BOOM! will soon re-enter the popular culture as a movie adaptation. Additionally, previously unpublished songs by Jonathan Larson have been recently produced as a series of concerts and a studio album The Jonathan Larson Project. RENT has been re-imagined in various formats over the years: countless professional and educational theatre productions, a live TV production, a feature film… What makes the 20th anniversary touring production unique?
What sets this production apart from RENT live on television, or RENT at the Hollywood Bowl, or RENT at a high-school or a college, – this particular production is set by the same creative team who created the show in 1996. It’s the same choreography, music supervision, directorial team. This tour is in a sense a revival of the original production, so for people who are serious RENT fans, who follow the show since 1996, I think this show is a big draw and appeasement. It’s the same set, costumes, choreography that they would’ve seen when the show opened in New York City in 1996. It’s funny because while it is the same production, it is also very specific to the time period. Now in 2019, it is a fresh group of actors telling the story, so we get our own fresh voice within those original parameters of the show from the 1990s. We share it with generations of all ages, with many people who have had a very personal relationship with the show, people who love it. I think even though it is such a 1990s piece of theatre, the message that it tells about love and acceptance is timeless. It is really special to be a part of telling this story and seeing how it continues to impact people almost 24 years after the show first opened. This is one of many things that make it such a unique theatre experience.
IY: RENT is a global phenomenon, it has fostered a worldwide community. What is the most remarkable aspect of witnessing the audiences’ reception of the show?
KS: While the show represents the community of New York City, it could also exist anywhere else, because at the core of it there are people who are longing to be loved and accepted exactly for who they are, and there are people around them who can help them to do so. And it so happens that this particular community is set in New York City.
The show represents many different people, so there is no one demographic [when it comes to audiences]. What was groundbreaking in this show in the first place was visibility and representation for people of color, the LGBTQ community, people who were living with HIV/AIDS, and it talked about so many real things that were going on, and people came to the theatre and saw themselves in the show. That being said, on tour we meet people of all ages, all races, all gender identities who come up to us and say how much the show means to them. It is interesting, there is no one type of person that you can pin as a RENT fan. It speaks to everyone on a deep and intimate level. Meeting the fans after the show, when we come out of the stage door, and we get a chance to interact with people, we love hearing about how important the show was to them when it debuted and still is now.
IY: Maureen Johnson is an iconic character. How do you envision her transformation over the years?
KS: I think she has changed. From working with the directorial team of the tour, I think that the show had to grow and evolve a bit with the changing of the time. We as the human race, in my opinion, have grown to be more delicate with our words, in terms of identity-related differences. It is a different time in 2019 compared to 1996, and a lot of things are differently appropriate between the two time periods. There are some references, specifically in Over The Moon, that have evolved and changed over the years, to make them more universally acceptable. That being said, there have been many actors who had played Maureen and all the other characters in the show. But because these characters are real people and not caricatures, cartoons, or typical musical theatre-larger-than-life characters, when you get to play these characters, you get to bring your own personal sensibilities to them. the thing that I really appreciated about working with the creative team is that they were not ever trying to put Idina Menzel’s or Eden Espinosa’s versions of Maureen on me. They looked at me and said, “Okay, this is Kelsee, what does Kelsee bring to the table?” She [Maureen] has definitely been different with every actor’s interpretation. She definitely has grown a bit with the time, which is funny, it’s a juxtaposition: we’re looking at her inside of the 1996 world, but she is telling this story in 2019, so there needs to be a little bit of knowledge about that as well when approaching the show as big, gritty and real as RENT is.
IY: Maureen is a very diverse character, within herself. Throughout the story, she shows different sides of her personality and soul. Do you have a moment, a song, a line, or maybe a note in the show that you cherish the most?
KS: I agree, Maureen gets to show so many different sides of herself because she is a multi-faceted character. My favorite line in the show is when I sing at the very end in the finale with the rest of the company. It’s the moment “I trust my soul, my only goal is just to be.” That is my favorite line in the show, it resonates with me so much, because we are all on this path to some sort of destiny, and we rarely know what that destiny is. Being able to have the knowledge and the power to relinquish the fact that you might not know and that things are going to change, and seasons of love are going to end as well, you should still trust yourself and know how to handle whatever comes your way. That is my favorite moment. I thank Jonathan for his writing, every day.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.