Before having the opportunity to see his own first Off-Broadway preview performance, Jonathan Larson – the playwright, composer and lyricist of ‘Rent’ – passed away. With that, Larson never got to witness the effect of what his noisy cacophony of pop songwriting, diversity-driven socially-and-sexually aware characters and punkish energy meant to audiences – then or now.
In the last year, not only has Lin Manuel-Miranda directed a film version of Larson’s rarely-seen autobiographical musical ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ for Netflix (starring Andrew Garfield as Larson in a 2022 Oscar nominated role). Larson’s ‘Rent’ – a coarse, joyful musical inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ – will hit the stage for its 25th anniversary “farewell” tour at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Merriam Theater on March 4 – 6.
While one-time Kimmel Education student and Philadelphia native Shafiq Hicks, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and a voice major at Temple University, will take on the ‘Rent’ role of Tom Collins, New York City native Tommy Kaiser is making his ‘Rent’ national tour debut as Roger and Mark.
Before ‘Rent’ and this first time back on stage since the pandemic’s start, Kaiser – like all theater makers – made due with online performances and gigs on Instagram and Tik Tok. “Making connections there was great; we had to figure out different ways to work,” says Brooklyn-native Kaiser.
One way that Kaiser made explosive social media work for him (and “getting seen by the right people”) came courtesy his winning BroadwayWorld’s a recent “Next on Stage” competition by recording himself on his phone, performing. “You really can gather a more diverse group of actors through Zoom and social media and do performances though there. Due to the pandemic, we can develop relationships with people far away, and bring those connections together. It’s awesome that there is this new medium for theater.”
When discussing ‘Rent’ (Kaiser’s debut touring experience), the young singer, dancer and actor talks of its socially-dedicated storyline and its beloved late author, Lawson, in reverent tones.
“Lawson has always been my favorite composer – it’s the first show that I’ve loved since I was a kid. He has such as cool way of making different songs for different voices and different people. Listen to ‘Rent’: there are so many diverse sounds and tones and voices.”
The musical range that Larson commands – and that goes beyond Kaiser’s vocal G2 to C5 – touches down, most prominently, on the late composer’s lyrics. However, claims Kaiser, Larson also “puts it all on the page, and leaves it all up to the artist,” to interpret and make his own. “He relies on the emotions that an actor is putting into every lyric. A repetitive tune from Roger, such as ‘One Song Glory,’ for instance, is about finishing a song before the character leaves, and its intensity – that feeling of running out of time – comes from the singer. The song really speaks to what the character is going through, and really gains in connection by the energy its actor puts across.”
Kaiser states that his Mark character is most like himself (‘goofy and fun’), while Roger is a dramatically different headspace in which to be, one requiring “grunge and rasp, but a delicateness, too – a soulfulness.” The actor goes on to say that as the character runs further out of time, Rent’s intensity heightens. “The pain of what these characters are going through, their vulnerability… every night, it’s super emotional to consider the loss they’ve gone through,” says Kaiser.
That’s the mark of what makes the late Jonathan Larson so epic – that repetition of musical motif and the drive toward intensity, to consider the power of song and the necessity to make itself heard.
Between the award season currency of ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ and this anniversary tour for ‘Rent’, there must be a great responsibility for an actor such as Kaiser to continue to tell Larson’s story and sing out his legacy.
“The responsibility for us on the ‘Rent’ tour, and anyone putting on a Jonathan Larson production, is to get across his main message, which is to live without regret and to choose love over fear every time,” says Kaiser. “That’s his stories have remained relevant. They don’t hide the ugly side of life, and being truthful as actors– to the good and the bad, to honoring his story – is what makes ‘Rent’ relatable to all.”
More information and tickets are available online.