No Shame Playing The Fame Game: A Rent Dream Cast

When Rent was originally developed off-Broadway in 1995, the cast was comprised of both newbies and veteran actors, but the one thing they all had in common was talent. Adam Pascal, much like Roger, was an aspiring rocker when he stumbled across the audition for Rent. He had never really done musical theater before – in fact, the blocking for One Song Glory in which he goes back and forth from a table was designed specifically so he could look at pages of the script to rememeber his lines. Meanwhile, his co-star Anthony Rapp had already made his Broadway debut 15 years prior to taking the Nederlander stage.

And over the past two decades, casting for Rent in productions around the world have followed the same formula. You get a handful of “Adams” (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pals Karen Olivo and Leslie Odom Jr.) and “Anthonys” (Neil Patrick Harris, Mel B, Joey Fatone).

With all this talent floating around for the past 20 years, I got to thinking what a production would look like if I put the best of the best together in one dream cast. Let me tell you it’s harder than it seems, just because so many people have come and gone in these iconic roles over the past two decades. I will say that I tried to not use OBC members since they’re lit’rally on a different level (I mean, just look at these bbs at the ’96 Tony Awards), so here are some of my faves who have been to Alphabet City and were the best to tell the epic story of Rent.

Skyler Astin as Mark Cohen and Aaron Tveit as Roger Davis

Every year, the folks at the Hollywood Bowl pick a musical to present for one weekend in the summer, and it’s usually a star-studded affair. They’ve done Hairspray, Spamalot, and this year they’re doing A Chorus Line, but in 2010, Neil Patrick Harris (who played Mark in a ’97 national tour) was put in charge as the director of Rent. And he managed to get a super talented cast on board – Wayne Brady (Collins), Vanessa Hudgens (Mimi), Nicole Scherzinger (Maureen), and Gwen Stewart, who reprised her role from the OBC as the soloist in Seasons of Love. But the real highlight was a pre-Pitch Perfect and post-Next to Normal Aaron Tveit as Mark and Roger, respectively. This duo alone made me immediately purchase a ticket (again, one of the eight times I’ve seen Rent). Both Aaron and Skyler are amazing singers and Broadway vets, so commanding an audience of 17,000 in an outdoor amphitheater is no small feat, but both got the job done and done well. They were perfectly cast and also had good chemistry between themselves, which bodes well as the core of the Rent family. I think I passed out during What You Own.

Renee Elise Goldsberry as Mimi Márquez

Before she was looking for a mind at work, Renee Elise Goldsberry was looking for a light and her stash of heroin in Rent. The goddesss that we all know and love from Hamilton was the last person to play Mimi on Broadway when it closed in 2008. Renee played her version of Mimi as sexy, cool, and vulnerable all at the same time, and of course had the pipes to back it up. I also managed to see the final Broadway run (2 of 8, #humblebrag) and when I stage doored the cast, I legit have a picture that’s currently up on Facebook of a pic of Renee posing for a picture *with someone else that’s not me* and the caption reads, “renee … something or other. she played mimi. she was also on one life to live.” Oh 2008 Traci. Little did you know.

Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins

Ok, here’s one of two exceptions I made with the OBC. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing as good a job as Jesse L. Martin did with Collins. Few have come close, but I don’t think anyone’s been able to capture the same heart and sorrow Jesse conveyed as Collins. And separately, Jesse is a fantastic actor, while also an astounding singer, and no where else does this come through the best than when he sings the I’ll Cover You reprise. There hasn’t been a time I’ve watched him sing this where I haven’t cried.

Justin Johnson as Angel Dumott Schunard

Justin was Renee’s co-star in the final Broadway cast, and akin to Jesse, it’s hard to live up to the OG cast, especially following Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who took home a Tony for playing Angel. But there was something about Justin in this role that *gave Angel new wings*. I remember thinking he made the role feel fresh, and exciting again. After 12 years, there have been Angels who copy Wilson, and Angels who take it too far, but Justin was jussttt right. He also had outstanding chemistry with his Collins, played by Michael McElroy, who might come up again later.

Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen Johnson

Honestly, if you don’t like Annaleigh Ashford don’t talk to me. This girl is amazing in everything she does, frankly it’s annoying. From Wicked to Kinky Boots to Masters of Sex, she manages to bring humor and heart to every role. If Idina can’t be Maureen, I want Annaleigh to be Maureen in everything. This role is so perfect for her, I almost can’t even watch it.

Tracie Thoms as Joanne Jefferson

Tracie had been auditioning for Rent for eight years before booking the role of Joanne in the movie – she was a legit Renthead that proved dreams could come true. And not only did she appear on the big screen as Maureen’s love interest, she reprised her role in the final Broadway cast in 2008 and in 2010 for the Hollywood Bowl. And with all due respect to Fredi Walker Browne, I always pictured Joanne more like Tracie, which is why I think she’s the perfect person to play opposite a young firecracker like Maureen. True story: I met Tracie Thoms after the Broadway show and told her we had the same name. She feigned amusement. I hung my head in shame and my friend took this super zoomed in pic of us:

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lolololol

Leslie Odom Jr. as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III

Like his Hamilton co-star Renee, Leslie also had a role in Rent prior to heading off to duel A. Ham, in fact, Rent was his Broadway debut. He grew up singing in church and musicals weren’t even in vocabulary until Rent. He graduated from high school and had spent the summer auditioning when he got the called to play Paul in the ensemble. He was 17. Now at 34, I’m pretty sure he can pull off a pretty convincing “villain” in Benny. I think he’s had some practice.

Ensemble

  • Michael McElroy as Mr. Jefferson / Pastor

As previously mentioned, Michael was the last person to play Collins on Broadway and I was :thisclose: to choosing him for Collins, but bumped him in favor of my boy Jesse instead. Again, his chemistry with Justin was infectioous and his voice is so so dreamy.

  • Gwen Stewart as Mrs. Jefferson / Woman with bags / “Seasons of Love” soloist

Also as previously mentioned, Gwen was in the OBC, so why not ruin a good thing?

  • Wayne Wilcox as Gordon / The Man / Mr. Grey

Wayne played Gordon in the movie but you know why he looks familiar to you? Because he played Marty, Rory’s sometimes naked, unrequited love interested from Gilmore Girls.

  • Telly Leung as Paul

Telly was in the final Broadway cast in the ensemble and also played Angel in the Hollywood Bowl cast and he is just delightful.

  • Emma Hunton as Alexi Darling / Mrs. Davis

Emma played Maureen in the 2011 Off-Broadway revival, and you obviously have to have an impressive set of pipes for that role. She’s also been in Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and in the little role Elphaba in the Wicked tour.

  • Aaron Lohr Steve / Squeegee man / Waiter

Aaron played the same role, and in a seat next to Wayne Wilcox in the movie, and again, if he looks familiar to you, you’re a child of the ’90s because he was Mush in Newsies and in D2 and D3: The Mighty Ducks as Dean Portman.

  • Eden Espinosa as Mrs. Cohen

Eden took on the role of Maureen in the final Broadway cast with some others mentioned above. And it seems to be some kind of trend because like Emma and Idina – she also is best known for playing Elphie both on Broadway and on tour for Wicked.

Comments, Questions, Concerns: Grease Live

I guess we, as an American people, have decided that we can’t get enough of lived televised musicals – and I love this development. Something about the live format, the beloved, classic musicals, and the slightly cheesy sets and costumes makes me feel like I’m living in the 1960s, when the whole family would gather around the television set to watch the big Sunday night movie. It feels like I should be eating that kind of popcorn you make in an aluminum pan over the stove, or a quaint dessert like popovers.

Grease Live did not disappoint. Sure, parts of it were a bit questionable, but on the whole it was what light family-friendly television is at its best: just a whole lot of fun. Here are the comments, questions and concerns that came into my head during the very enjoyable broadcast.

Comment: There’s so much stunt casting I’m watching this with the IMDB page open.

Some favorites: Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) as Mrs. Murdock, Didi Con (the original Frenchy) as Vi, Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as Coach Calhoun – not to mention the more heavily touted roles played by Vanessa Hudgens (!!), Aaron Tveit (heart-eyes-emoji), Julianne Hough, Keke Palmer and Ana Gasteyer. And Boyz II Men, who I think are probably all just men now.

Question: Did the fourth wall break?

The musical starts (and ends) with the actors prancing throughout the Warner Brothers backlot – AKA Stars Hollow, among other locations. There are a whole lot of wink-wink references to this being a live musical on television in 2016. It wasn’t bad – it was perfectly fine – but it also wasn’t a necessary addition.

Concern:  The live audience yelling when someone enters like the Titanic is sinking and they missed the lifeboat.

When we were watching The Wiz we noted that the one thing the production was missing was a live studio audience. We got one here, but sometimes it was a bit awkward. Namely, they screamed with joy when the stars entered but weren’t actually present for all of the numbers, where you want to hear an audience applauding and reacting. However, as time went on they were present for more and more scenes. The way they were worked in – visible, sitting in bleachers, watching the action – was a tad awkward, but it was the first go at having an audience at one of these and, as they say in self-help books, we’re aiming for progress not perfection.

Comment: Sandy is from Utah. Julianne Hough is Mormon. Sandy is Mormon.

Mormon Mommy Blogger Chic.

We both watched this with the head-cannon that it was secretly a Modern Mormon Musical. Sandy was a stylish yet modest dresser (like some of our favorite Mormon mommy bloggers) and she was really wholesome, yet friendly to everyone even if they were into stuff she’d never do. However, good luck getting that temple recommend after wearing that Hussy outfit and drinking all that caffeine at the soda fountain.

Concern: Maybe they could have changed the gross lyrics in Summer Nights.

Despite making a few family-friendly lyrical revisions, they kept the line asking if Sandy “put up a fight.”

Question: Are we pretending that Patty is really ugly because of the glasses?

Patty Simcox (Elle McLemore) is clearly gorgeous, but I guess we’re doing that thing where she has bad glasses and a dowdy skirt so nobody can tell. She quickly becomes one of my favorites. Actually, I always liked Patty: she was earnest and a bit of a joiner, but so am I.

Question: Where is my Patty and Eugene spinoff?

If this were a Disney Channel Original Musical there would have been one.

Comment: Jan, in the OG Grease movie and in Grease Live, looks like a cross between a 1950s girl and early 90s Kathleen Hanna.

Question: What are these accents?

Some of the actors are talking like my friends’ nanas from Long Island. Others are talking like the Kristen Wiig “I don’t wanna sing” character. What state is Rydell High supposed to be in?

Question: Was Kenickie only named Kenickie because it rhymed with hickey?

I’m almost positive.

Comment: Aaron Tveit during Greased Lighting, everybody.

Within seconds there were requests on Twitter for Tveit’s pelvic thrust, but me, I’m more into the wink at the end. Oh, who am I kidding. I’m into all of it. (live-tweeting mnemonic: “I before E, except Aaron Tveit.”)

Comment: I ship Danny and Doody.

They have the best duet of the night and they CLEARLY love each other!

Concern: I ship me and Doody.

I think I went through puberty again during Magic Changes. Jordan Fisher was in the Teen Beach Movie franchise and appears to be over the age of 18.

Comment: Vanessa Hudgens is amazing.

Her father died the night before the broadcast, making this the acting version of when a football player’s parent dies the day of the Superbowl or whatever. Her performance would have been just as impressive sans tragic circumstances, but still – wow. No people like show people, y’all.

There Are Worse Things I Could Do is a song you have to nail in order to keep Rizzo from being a cartoon, and she did it. She’s also by far the youngest Rizzo I’ve ever seen, high school productions aside.

Concern: Carly Rae Jepson’s new song.

If they added the song All I Need Is An Angel for awards show eligibility, I have some news they won’t like. It doesn’t even fit stylistically with the rest of the show.

Question: Can Boyz II Men do one of those talking intros where they call Frenchy ‘girl’?

That’s my only quibble. They were WONDERFUL and I was so happy seeing them!

Concern: AC  Slater is hitting on teenaged Marty as though he learned nothing from Jessie Spano.

She’d never allow that behavior.

Comment: Saved By The Bell is really old.

I did some math during the school dance. When Saved By The Bell began, Grease was set 30 years in the past. In 2016, season 1 of SBTB was 27 years ago. Ergo, the late 80s/early 90s look as old to kids today as the NINETEEN FREAKING FIFTIES did when SBTB was on. Which is to say: yikes.

Concern: I feel like people aren’t excited enough about Jan Brady.

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Question: Why is the carnival in the gym?? Especially when there is an outside?

The carnival is set up in the gym, which doesn’t seem the most fun.

Concern: I wish there was a way around Slutty! Sandy.

Sandy’s hoochie clothes are really fun, but I wish there was a way to frame it as something other than her changing for Danny – like that her parents made her dress in those cute pastel librarian clothes but she personally hated it, or something.

Comment: NEVER MIND. THEY GO OUTSIDE. IT IS AMAZING.

Everyone gets a curtain call, and they let actors drive those studio tour carts, and it’s just a whole lot of fun!

Ugly Cry & CGI Waists: Live Blogging Les Miserables

We saw Les Mis and took notes during the movie, because we’ll do anything to become internet famous. Obvi there are spoilers ahead, but in our defense, this musical’s been out for 25 years.

T: The Overture is playing and I’m already fighting the urge to sing along.

M: Just me, or do the first chords of the overture sound like the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, another beloved musical set in 19th century France? I am now composing a mental mash up: “Little town, it’s a quiet village (At the end of the day you’re another day older), Every day like the one before (And that’s all you can say in the life of the poor).” Works pretty well.

T: A straggler walks up the stairs next to us wearing an ugly Christmas sweater (non-ironically); reminds me I’m in the suburbs where people actually do that.

M: Okay, SO funny Traci should mention that, because I made a mental note to ask her whether she’s missed Western NY fashions and coiffure. [My physical note, however, simply read “THIS SWEATER.”]

T: Wondering if Hugh Jackman’s gnarly beard is real. It looks like a grey Brillo pad.

M: Why does Valjean have an accent out of a 1950s western? This shit is getting rhotic

T: Note to self: Look up the ginge Foreman in the factory where Fantine works, looks famil.

T: Alright. I had my doubts about Princess Diaries when I saw the first trailer, but seeing her in I Dreamed a Dream is basically why she deserves all the awards. This also marks the first time I teared up.

M: Anne Hathaway is one of the most phenomenal ugly criers I’ve seen. I hope that is taken as the compliment that it is. Her crying deserves its own blog post. (T note: Don’t worry guys, it’s coming)

“If I don’t get an Oscar for this, I swear to God…”

T: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are on point as Madame and Monsieur Thenardier. Except Cohen’s accent is questionable, pretty sure I heard Borat sneaking in there.

M: I am just confused. Why is Sacha Baron Cohen being allowed to do what I assume is supposed to be a French accent? See, this is why most movies set in non-anglophone countries just make everyone sound vaguely British: consistency. And so accents like this don’t happen.

T: So here’s the thing with going into a movie-musical adaptation with knowledge of the music so well: you can’t help but go in comparing the new version to the original. In this case I’d say everyone made it their own… Except Russell Crowe. This was especially evident during Stars. His performance was mediocre at most, and felt flat the entire time. It was like a high school student singing in his chorus concert. This number is supposed to be the first breakout song for Javert, a song that expresses his desire to hunt down JVJ, but it felt like Russell was just trying to focus on hitting the notes. And everyone knows he’s a good actor, but it just did not show at all in the movie. If you want to see a real version of Stars, watch Phillip Quast.

M: I am getting so much secondhand vertigo from Javert walking on this ledge. I feel like I’m going to sympathy puke like I’m in third grade and the teacher has just brought out that vomit-muffling sawdust. Also I see what you’re doing here, Les Mis.

T: Fun fact: Nick Jonas of Selena Gomez’s ex-bf played Gavroche on Broadway when he was a little kid. He went on to play Marius in the west end production in 2011, where Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine in the movie, also played Eponine to Nicky’s Marius. They both were in the 25th anniversary concert production which I remember watching and felt second hand embarrassment for Nick J, even though I love him (no shame).

M: No wait. Just wait. The kids are all so Cockney that I think Cosette’s going to tell Thenardier “please sir, I want some more” and call JVJ “gov’nah.” What sort of Parisian United Nations is this supposed to take place in? Let’s make it easy: BBC accents for rich people, chav-speak for poor people.

T: AARON TVEIT!!!! I seriously forget every time that Aaron is in Les Mis as rev leader Enjorlas. To theater nerds, you know who he is. To everyone else, you may recognize him as Trip Archibald, Nate’s politician cousin that seduced Serena in Gossip Girl. Or as I know him, a smokeshow Broadway singer that I’m in love with.

M: This anachronistic hair is killing me! Who would have cut Eponine’s side bangs for her? That’s pretty high maintenance for someone who likely would have bathed about as often as she celebrated Christmas.

T: Can someone explain to me why Samantha Barks is so so tiny?! Corset probably? Or like that ancient Chinese foot banding thing but for her waist?

M: God Christ Jesus, Samantha Barks’s waist was achieved with CGI… Right? Mother of God there is no hope for the rest of us.

CGI, yes?

T: Can someone also explain to me why I found Hugh Jackman attractive while he was wearing his Seinfeld puffy shirt and lederhosen??

M: I have grown so old that I can’t sit one way for 20 minutes without my knees hurting. I bet this is super distracting to the people behind me. I mean I hope it is, this girl has kicked my seat back at least once a musical number.

M: My notes during On My Own read “Joey Potter.” I meant this. Holmes killed it. She made that song die.

T: Oh hey, remember that time when my favorite (least favorite) Taylor Swift was almost cast as Eponine? Really dodged a bullet with that one.

M: New blog post: Les Mis songs as written by Taylor Swift? “She wears hoop skirts, I wear corsets, She’s petit bourgeois, I’m just a street kid…”.

M: Are these ridiculously attractive young men representative of what Frenchmen look like? I don’t remember seeing so many handsome gents when I went there, but if someone can confirm I may have to go back.

M: I was cringing the second Gavroche began singing Little People. Don’t even start, lil buddy! It’s not going to go great.

T: Pretty sure I heard somebody snoring during Empty Chairs.

T: Eddie Redmayne tho. WTG.

T: Something I’ve never thought about before: why was it so easy for Cossette and Marius to fall in love after making googly eyes at each other and signing a duet through a cast iron fence? I’m available to do that with a suitor at any time.

M: Why is only Eponine’s face wet? Little fall of rain, indeed.

M: Alright, there it goes on Marius.

M: Dude, no. Javert, no. Get off the ledge. I’m getting a headache.

T: JVJ’s death scene (kind of) verbatim:

JVJ : I can die now. I’m over this.

Fantine: Yes, come hang out with me and all these boys from the rev.

Cossette : No, don’t die. You can’t die.

JVJ: Yes I can.

Cossette: No you can’t!

JVJ: Yes I can, woman! Watch me. PS: Here’s a letter I wrote about my life because I couldn’t tell you when I had the chance.

JVJ dies.

T: Total times I cried: 4. Sounds about right.

M: Cried less than I thought! Like twice-ish. Little tears. I thought I was going to go full-Hathaway.

T: In case you were wondering: ginge foreman was no one. I’m not always right about these things.

M: Just so you know, a lot of people have been googling “Samantha Barks waist” and now I’m oddly concerned that she’ll find out and get self-conscious. Girl, ya look good. I mean she’s probably doing fine, right? Yeah.