Since opening in 1996, Rent has become a mainstay of contemporary musical theatre. The iconic play tells the story of seven young artists struggling to achieve their dreams in bohemian New York City under the cloud of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With a compelling cast of free spirits driven by their imaginations and a score that you’ll leave the theater belting, Rent is coming back to the nation’s capital this week on its 20th anniversary touring production. On Tap had the chance to chat with actor Katie LaMark, who plays Maureen. Here’s what she had to say about the relevancy of the show after so many years, and her approach to tackling such a well-known and beloved character.
On Tap: Tell me a little about Maureen.
Katie LaMark: Maureen is the character that everyone talks about, that you don’t meet until you know everything about her. She’s Mark’s ex and current partner to Joanne. She’s a revolutionary performance artist, [and] opposed to gentrification and the way [that] wealthy people are handling homelessness. She does what she wants. Some say she’s a diva, but I think she’s a “high art” woman of passion.
OT: Did the popularity of Rent hinder your role preparation?
KL: Yes, it was a huge challenge. It’s been amazing to play a character that Idina Menzel has played, but who I am is really different. I hope people who know the show well will find that they’re looking at this character from a new angle, and will appreciate the new take on [Maureen].
OT: Maureen is a lively character, but also has rougher moments. How do you prepare to tackle her night after night?
KL: If you have a rough character that is beloved, take a comedic approach. There are times you might not like her much, but if I believe what I say, it opens the opportunity for the audience to laugh instead of being turned off by her. To prepare, I love being a social butterfly before the show. It gets me excited for “La Vie Boheme,” because it’s essentially her party and a door for the audience to walk through to [liking] Maureen.
OT: After two decades on countless stages, why do you think that Rent is still relevant in today’s society?
KL: Twenty years is the magic number in theatre. It’s the natural gestation period of an iconic musical. Every 20 years, you can identify a significant turning point in musical theatre. It educates about time period and the AIDS epidemic; the idea that suddenly something out of your control is taking away people you love, which reflects in today’s society in ways other than AIDS. My favorite part about Rent is that all of the characters are dealing with specific things, but never part of [a] struggle. For example, Maureen and Joanne are an interracial lesbian couple, but they never talk about it, because it isn’t an issue.
OT: There’s an underlying message in the musical of pursuing your dreams, but also of recognizing the most important aspect of life is love. What’s your take on this?
KL: I have never been asked this before! I think it’s great that we meet these people when they’re dealing with the day to day of following their dreams. Benny offers free rent to friends and clings onto his love for what’s real in pursuit of truth. You have to pursue love above all else. Everything else is a waste of time.
OT: Why do you think it’s important for DC to see Rent right now?
KL: On our last stop of the tour, I hope DC audiences feel how much we care about this show. We’ve had 270 shows, and it’s still as energizing and important as [it was] the first time. I’ve been to DC several times before, and despite it being diverse, it’s still very segmented. I think it’s important to a DC audience because they will see themselves in one of our characters regardless of where they’re from, and they’ll be able to connect with a character. A politician could identify with Maureen or Benny, as they’re in a position of power to make change. Change is not without conflict, but you can work together for the greater good. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic first came to America, the administration refused to acknowledge it’s existence. Because nothing was done, the number of lives lost to the disease, especially within the gay community, was enormous. It’s wrong, killing people we love, and it’s still happening today. We are artists because one of the only ways to ease [the] suffering of the world is if you can share a consciousness with someone else. The closest we get to that is through art.
Rent runs at National Theatre from June 20 to June 25. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.thenationaldc.org.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org