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The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music's debut production of "Rent" -- Feb. 24-March 6, 2011. Video and photos shot and produced by Ashley Kempher/UC Creative Services. Request UC photography or video services.

'Rent' originators inspire current CCM cast at UC

Students get stories from Tony-winning alumnus producer Kevin McCollum, actor Anthony Rapp and AIDS patients

by Deborah Rieselman

February 14, 2011

Gasps, sighs and sniffles are often heard from an audience when viewing the rock opera "Rent," which deals with relationships and AIDS. But gasps came from CCM cast members on Feb. 8 when the students saw Anthony Rapp standing in the doorway of rehearsal. One of the play's leading actors since its workshop beginning in '94, Rapp is even more recognizable from starring in the '05 movie "Rent."

"You could feel this hush fall over the room," said senior Joey DeBenedetto, who plays several roles in the show. When Rapp remarked how hard it was to find the rehearsal hall on campus, the cast decided to make his search worthwhile and ran through the entire first act — under the watchful eye of the man who had originated the character of Mark Cohen.

"It was profoundly moving," said Richard Hess, CCM (M) ’93, director of the College-Conservatory of Music's drama program and director of the play, which runs Feb. 24 through March 6. "The students had invited him, and he clearly wanted to be there. Afterward, he gave 20 minutes of notes on how to live in the songs more fully."

The invitation came earlier in the day when Rapp conducted a master class with the "Rent" cast, an event sponsored by the UC Program and Activities Council. After dinner, the cast sang "Seasons of Love," and Rapp spoke to general students at the Tangeman University Center. "We always invite people to rehearsal," DeBendetto adds, "but we don't really think they are going to come. I was a little nervous singing in front of him, but in a good way."

Rapp's visit was the second VIP encounter the cast had, following UC alumnus Kevin McCollum's master classes a few weeks earlier. In '96, McCollum co-produced both the play, which won a Tony for Best Musical, and the movie. When the play closed in '08, it had become one of Broadway's longest running shows.

McCollum, CCM '84, HonDoc '05, presented two musical-theater master classes where he told how he had decided to produce the show while sitting through a reading of the play. "I looked at 'Rent' and said, 'That's not a show about AIDS. It's about creating family against the odds.'

"I sunk all the money I had into the show. It wasn't reactive; I was following my heart.

"We're in the drug business in musical theater," he explained. "We have to get the chemical reaction needed to get the hair to stand up on the back of your neck. This show starts on earth and ends in heaven."

Later that evening, McCollum talked to the "Rent" cast at their first rehearsal. That was when freshman Matt Hill grew inspired.

"I had an ignorant, closed opinion of the show until I heard from Kevin," Hill later admitted. "The first time I saw it was the movie, and Dad made us walk out, so I thought I shouldn't like it. I didn't understand why everyone loved it so much."

At the rehearsal, McCollum told stories about Jonathan Larson, the composer and writer who died the night before the show opened. He also played workshop songs that no one had heard for 17 years because Larson had rewritten them before the opening.

"Suddenly there was an energy in the room," Hill remembers, "and the stories sounded so much more honest and touching than we expected. I started crying instantly.

"He said Jonathan was in the room, and we were working with him, through him and for him. I believed it. Those things became so clear to me. He put words to things I hadn't been able to understand."

The show often has a life-changing impact on people, Rapp noted a few weeks later. Not only did he talk about heart-wrenching stories he heard around the world while touring and meeting other casts, he recalled an incident at a bookstore where a small boy sang the show's lyrics and handed him a construction-paper notebook in which he had drawn scenes with stick people. "There's a younger generation that continues to fall in love with the show," Rapp said.

Director Hess deliberately structured rehearsals and assignments to enforce the power of the play's message. "Every night before rehearsal, we stand in a circle and tell a story about someone who died of AIDS," DeBendetto says.

"Last weekend, we sang in front of 150 AIDS and HIV-plus patients at a benefit for AIDS research. Next week, patients who are living with AIDS are coming to talk to us about what they are going through. It's been one of the most moving theatrical experiences I could imagine."

Getting in touch with such emotions is vital for actors in "Rent," because the play "demands authenticity and presence," Hess says. "And this is a very different generation. They don't know what AZT (the first approved treatment for HIV) is ."

"This is one of those shows that everyone knows," DeBendetto admits, "but when you get to dive into what it all means and where it all comes from, it's very moving. We're not going to recreate Broadway here, but we are going to create a piece of theater that will move people."

CCM's "Rent"

  • Feb. 24-27 and March 3-6 in Patricia Corbett Theater
  • A 12- by 12-foot panel of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display in the theater.
  • At the end of each curtain call, students will accept money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a national nonprofit that supports AIDS service organizations (Tom Viola, CCM '76, is executive director and recipient of the '10 Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre for his work.)
  • CCM box office, 513-556-4183

Notes on "Rent"

  • a New York City version of Puccini's "La Bohème," featuring artists struggling with AIDS
  • written by Jonathan Larson, who suddenly died of an aortic dissection the day before the play's opening
  • won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score; Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Book of a Musical, Outstanding Music, Outstanding Lyrics
  • started as a staged reading in 1993 at the New York Theatre Workshop
  • reworked for a studio production in 1994
  • major revisions created the version known to today, which opened off-Broadway in January 1996
  • moved to Broadway in April 1996
  • closed September '08
  • toured throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Singapore and Mexico
  • adapted as a motion picture, starring six of the original cast members, in 2005

Related article:
Read Kevin McCollum's comments at his master class.

Read more about CCM's production of "Rent" in this press release.