Since its Broadway premiere in 1996, the musical Rent has become a somewhat unlikely cult and box office phenomenon.
Considered groundbreaking when it first hit the scene, this gritty yet ultimately uplifting modern take on Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme rocked the staid world of musical theatre. Its unflinching look at the underside of post-AIDS epidemic New York bohemia features an assortment of ethnically diverse characters, many of whom are openly gay and transgender and many of whom suffer from -- and die from -- HIV.
A decade later, the world is no longer shocked at such realism, and pop culture is courser than ever before. But Rent -- now the seventh-longest running musical in Broadway history -- has managed to retain its mystical, magical appeal, almost as if a moment frozen in time.
Legions of nearly obsessive fans -- called Rentheads, naturally -- swarm fan sites and follow touring productions around. Indeed, the show’s wide appeal to a younger generation gave rise to the now-common Manhattan practice of offering “rush tickets,” low-price, last-minute tickets awarded by lottery.
At least one major star cut his teeth on the show, Jesse L. Martin, who currently plays Detective Ed Green in the mega-hit NBC series Law and Order. Martin played Tom Collins in the original Broadway production of Rent, reprising the role for the hit 2005 movie.
Playing the role Martin made famous in a touring production of RENT making its way to the Johnny Mercer Theatre Sept. 28 is Warren G. Nolan Jr. We spoke to Nolan last week.
Connect Savannah: How long have you been with the current road show of Rent?
Warren Nolan Jr.: This cast all started around the same time. We began rehearsing in January and had our first opening night performance in February in Cleveland.
Connect Savannah: Surely this is the biggest thing you’ve been associated with. How did you prepare yourself for the experience?
Warren Nolan Jr.: I don’t know that you can prepare for this thing called Rent! Before I was a part of the show I had immense respect for it and definitely knew about the reputation. But I had no idea I would be a part of the culture that it is. I mean, it’s a phenomenon.
It’s touched so many people, especially kids, especially people who feel on the outs of society. This show seems to have a real place in their hearts, a real hold on them.
Connect Savannah: Tell us about your character and how you’ve related to him.
Warren Nolan Jr.: My job is to play an honest character. I sort of benefit from the fact that my character is one who doesn’t get seriously sick from HIV. That’s something that’s made my character easier to play. There are strong ramifications, of course -- I have to watch my lover die, and I imagine many people who have watched someone die like that have known that that may be their fate. There’s also an immense guilt involved with that.
I just went into the situation and hoped that I could be honest and I could be real and ultimately find some truth in the character.
Connect Savannah: Has the role changed you?
Warren Nolan Jr.: Well, I grew up this sheltered little Christian boy, but I’ve come to feel real empathy for everyone, whether they’re a drag queen or a heroin addict. All these people I used to think of as derelicts, these people all had a story I never took time to understand.
Connect Savannah: When Rent premiered, the issue of AIDS was still in the news. Now, it seems the world has moved on to other issues, like war and terrorism. How relevant is the issue to your audiences?
Warren Nolan Jr.: It was so prevalent in the media for so long, but now people seem to believe that it’s over with. It’s not taken as seriously. But sometimes it takes a show like this for people to realize that people do die from this. And it’s still a real issue – the numbers are going back up.
Connect Savannah: Because the show deals with such ‘90s issues, do you feel it’s at all dated?
Warren Nolan Jr.: The great thing about this show is that it isn’t about people dying from HIV/AIDS. One of the greatest lines from the show is living with, not dying from, disease. In essence these people are living their lives fully.
That’s one of the things that makes people drawn to the show. This can touch you in a variety of different ways. It can just be about the fact that you’re trying to live each day as if it’s your last.
Connect Savannah: What kind of crowds are you seeing so far? What are the demographics that you can see?
Warren Nolan Jr.: What you have is a new group of people getting into it. The great thing about the movie is that after it came out it really brought in new audiences. We’re seeing a whole new crop of people. Of course, some people have no idea what they’re getting themselves into or what they’re about to see.
We have 80-year-old grandmothers coming to the show. One woman has a gay son, and she had been very judgmental about that. They saw the movie together and then saw the play, and the mother just broke down and said, “I’m so sorry, I had no idea.”
What’s most important about the show is that it’s about love for these people. People come into the theater like it’s a rock concert, but they go out seeing the love inside people, whether you’re a drug addict or drag queen.
Connect Savannah: What’s next for you after this tour? What kind of show would you like to do next?
Warren Nolan Jr.: There aren’t too many shows that are going to have a Rent-like quality to them. The following this has is incredible. You are really made aware of the fact that there’s a legacy. At one point I had to just stop looking at all the fan sites, because everyone has an opinion.
I can only hope that the next gig will be a little bit different than this. It’ll be fun to do a show where the expectation is not so high, where people won’t say, “Hey, Jesse didn’t do it that way (laughs).”
Rent, written by Jonathan Larson and directed by Michael Greif, will be performed at the Johnny Mercer Theatre on Thursday, September 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets, which range in price from $32 to $52, can be purchased at the Johnny Mercer Theatre box office, all Civic Center outlets, online at www.savannahcivic.com, or by calling 651-6556.