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:
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.
- 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.