Original cast member on living (and dying) in America at the end of the millennium
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rodney Hicks made his Broadway debut playing Paul, a cop and others in the original Broadway cast of RENT, which returns to Denver as a 20th anniversary tour from February 28 through March 1. Hicks, also a playwright whose ‘Flame Broiled. or the ugly play‘ recently had its world-premiere staging with Local Theatre Company in Boulder, also appeared for the curtain call of “RENT: Live,” a television special that was broadcast by Fox on January 27, 2019. We asked Hicks to write a first-person account about his time with the show.
It was a cold, snowy December day in 1995 when I auditioned for RENT, in the second-floor walk-up studio of New York Theater Workshop.
Earlier that year I had worked on another of Jonathan Larson’s musicals called Blocks. That is also where I met Anthony Rapp and Yassmin Alers, an original Broadway swing and longtime friend.
When I was sent the casting breakdown for RENT, I immediately thought I was too young as the ages stated mid-late 20s to early 30s. I was 21. Although I had a few professional shows under my belt at the time, having just come from a stint in Paris and Germany with a Peter Sellars piece, I was green.
At my audition I met Jesse L. Martin (the original Tom Collins) who has since been like a brother. After a bit of chit chat, my name was called to go in. I said hello to the table of people: Bernie Telsey (casting), Tim Weil (musical director/arranger), Jim Nicola (Artistic Director, NYTW), Michael Greif (director), Martha Banta (Assistant Director), Marlies Yearby (Choreographer) … and there was Jonathan. I remember him smiling his, “there’s Rodney” smile. It was comforting.
I proceeded to sing the wrong song, “This is the Moment” (from Jekyll & Hyde), then was asked to sing something more R&B, so I did “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne. I was then asked to improvise some dancing to a beat that Tim, who had jumped behind the piano to accompany me, began grooving out using the piano as his drums. That was my “dance call.” I took off my GAP red cardigan Christmas sweater and proceeded to do a little breakdancing and added a back flip for good measure. After the audition Michael said “Great,” Jonathan said, “Great seeing you, Rodney,” and Bernie said, “Thanks, Rodney. Before you leave, make sure you check the mirror.”
Sure enough, after looking in the mirror upon leaving the room, my fake goatee that I drew on with black mascara sweated off and was now all over my face. I had drawn it on to look older.
A couple of hours later my manager called letting me know I booked RENT.
‘Being a closeted gay person who was suddenly in a room celebrating a community I was afraid of being a part of was overwhelming.’ – Rodney Hicks
The show initially scared me because it was a direct reflection of all that I had come to fear about being gay because of how society had conditioned me to feel. At the time, being a closeted gay person who was suddenly in a room celebrating a community I was afraid of being a part of was overwhelming.
The death of Jonathan Larson
I remember leaving the theater and Jonathan giving me a thumbs up and a smile as I passed by. I saw that he finally got the interview he had longed for — The New York Times.
I thought I’d see him the next day. Our composer. Our friend.
But we did not.
We all stood in silence in the space of the New York Theater Workshop that next day. Just still. Then it was said that we would do a special invited sharing of the show to Jonathan’s friends and family who flew down to be with us. We sat in our “La Vie Boheme” chairs behind the tables and sang Jonathan’s show as he last heard it the night before.
Jonathan’s soul filled the room as we sang his words. Once we got to “La Vie Boheme,” I remember Anthony jumping on the table and raising his hand as if he held a glass toasting Jonathan. It was a moment in time I will never forget. We all leapt up on the table during the course of that number and in that one moment, we all collectively knew the story we were telling, why we were dancing, why we were singing, why we were there sharing this man’s brilliance and legacy.
The second act we put on its feet. After “Seasons of Love” you could hear a pin drop for several minutes. We could feel his spirit. Someone shouted, “We love you, Jonathan,” and then the whole room erupted in applause and cheer for this beautiful, singular artist and man.
Thankfully I had the experience of RENT, first as an original cast member until my initial departure in 1997 and again when I was asked to perform the role of Benjamin Coffin III to close RENT on Broadway in 2007.
I would go and visit — back by the sound board in the Nederlander Theatre or on tour. I’d watch, listen and be with all that I came to love about myself and the many people who I feel honored to know from my time with this poignant show that was always more than a show to me.
It’s a healing.
As you know, RENT became a runaway success and is now a landmark Broadway musical firmly set in theatre history.
I am grateful for all I learned on that journey of love, loss and continuance.
There is truly “No Day but Today,” and I now live my life by those very words and will always be incredibly grateful to Jonathan Larson, RENT and everyone who I have the honor to know and have worked with along that journey both onstage and off.
Rodney Hicks currently lives in Denver with his husband and two dogs. His work as a playwright, actor and director takes him all over. In addition to many roles
in theatre and TV, Rodney originated roles on Broadway in ‘RENT,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ and ‘Come From Away.’
RENT 20th Anniversary Tour: Ticket information
- At a glance: A re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, RENT follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters—love.
- Dates: February 28 through March 1
- Where: Buell Theatre
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here:
- More information: Visit the official RENT website