Actress Katie LaMark on touring the country as Maureen in Rent
It seems unfathomable that it has been 20 years since Rent first electrified Broadway and left its mark on an entire generation.
For the occasion, a 20th anniversary production has been touring the country, featuring Michael Grief’s original, iconic direction and much of the same creative team. An entire generation of theatregoers has been deprived of the chance to see this original staging.
It is impossible to bottle up the magic that Rent dispensed at the Nederlander Theatre for over 5,000 performances, but this is as close as we’re likely to get. For those of us who were there, it will be a nostalgic return. And for those who weren’t, it’s a rare chance to see why after two decades, Rent is still the best show in town.
Katie LaMark plays Maureen, and I had the honor of chatting with her about the relevancy of Rent, stepping into Idina Menzel’s leather catsuit, and why this role has made her a better person.
What kind of conversations have you had with your director or the other creators involved with the original production about making sure that this tour would really honor the integrity of the original rather than just something that would tour the country and make a lot of money?
One of the most incredible things about the process has been the relationship that the creatives have with the Larson family. We’ve actually had the opportunity to have dinner with Jonathan Larson’s family, and his father called us on the first day of rehearsal. I think that you know as you as you walk into a Rent rehearsal that you are a part of something special and that you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you. What’s been amazing about being on the tour in 2017 is that this is a show about people who are living an alternative lifestyle, who are being repressed. [AIDS] is an epidemic that people didn’t acknowledge was real until it was too late. We’re experiencing that now with gun control issues, with the fear of terror attacks, and with a president who does not support the arts and who does not think that a lot of problems that are happening are real. I have chills all over my body right now talking about this. It feels like it’s alive. It affects our new audiences, I hope, in the same way that it did 20 years ago because it’s speaking to people in the same way.
Thank you! It’s almost like I’ve been interviewing since August! [laughs]
You’re stepping into some very, very big shoes here, kind of in a way that most other actors in the show aren’t. Was it daunting to take on Maureen, or did you just set out to do it your way?
I had to go through that process. When I booked the part, truly, I was shocked. I never thought it would be me. I never thought I was the type, I didn’t think I was an Idina Menzel. Then I realized that they didn’t want another Idina Menzel, they wanted to find someone new and they wanted to find someone who was comfortable with themself. It’s a proud moment for me to know that that’s something they saw in me when I auditioned. I don’t see it so much as being in competition with her or having to achieve what she achieved as much as feeling really honored that I get to take on the same challenge that she did and to see that we can do it differently and that they’re both good.
Obviously the 20th anniversary is the reason for the tour, but the climate in America right now is such that this is a vital show to be touring the country right now. Why do you think that is?
I think that there are a lot of people in this country right now who feel that they are not being heard—who feel that their concerns, that their identity, that their place in the world is not legitimate in the eyes of our government. Their rights are being taken away from them, or if they have not been already there’s this extreme fear that they will be soon. This is about characters that are going through this exact same thing. The show stays relevant because people see themselves, and they see their current situation. It’s really funny, in the performance pieces now, the line: “Walls ain’t so bad. Not in my backyard utensils, go back to China.” People have a huge reaction to that now that they didn’t even when we started the tour. It was at a time when people didn’t think that was going to happen. And here we are, and it’s happening, and we have a villain—perhaps you can imagine what my political leanings are—the villain character in the show says a lot of the same things that our president is saying. It does not go over anybody’s head.
I never thought about it in that way before.
There’s so much discussion now, which I think is important and necessary, about sexual identity or the way that people choose to identify themselves with whatever pronouns. This is the first material in musical theater that acknowledges that, where we actually see characters struggling with pronouns when they refer to Angel.
Oh yeah, at the funeral when Mark says “He… she.”
Yes. One of the things that was really eye-opening for me was when we do our outreach at the LGBTQ centers, one of the first questions that our stage manager likes to lead with in discussion is that everyone introduces themselves and states what pronouns they use. I’m a straight female and I’m from a very liberal, artistic family, so of course my eyes are open to things, but this tour has been such an experience of getting to see people who have experiences different from mine. They are eager to connect, which is very exciting. I’m seeing this entire thing as an education.
That’s a major theme of the show, “connection in an isolated age.”
Yeah! I don’t think I will ever have another job—well, I hope some new material comes out that accomplishes the same things, but I certainly have not ever had a job where I feel so much connection to the people around me—my cast members, the audience members, the communities that we visit. I think I’m becoming a better person by doing this, and it feels good.
RENT. 4.11–4.23 AT THE SHUBERT THEATRE, 265 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. BOCHCENTER.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.