By CHRISTINE DOLEN, cdolen@MiamiHerald.com
Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal took different creative routes to their career-changing roles.
Rapp, a Midwesterner who did his first national theater tour at 10 in The King and I, was an experienced, thoroughly trained actor-singer. Pascal was a rocker who grew up on Long Island, playing and singing in bands, writing songs, recording an album with a group called Mute.
By 1995, both had been cast in a new rock musical inspired by Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. The show was called Rent, and its prodigiously talented composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson was determined to prove that a rock-driven musical could not just work on Broadway but also transform it.
Tragically, Larson died the night before the show's first Off-Broadway preview in January 1996, but Rent accomplished just what he dreamed it would. Its huge success -- it closed in 2008 as the eighth longest-running musical in Broadway history, grossing more than $280 million -- became life changing for Rapp, Pascal and their young castmates, including Taye Diggs (of TV's Private Practice), Idina Menzel (the first Elphaba in Broadway's Wicked) and Jesse L. Martin (TV's Law & Order).
Rapp and Pascal have lived with and periodically returned to Rent since. This week, the show's current national tour brings the stars who created the roles of videographer Mark (Rapp) and rocker Roger (Pascal), plus Gwen Stewart (the original soloist on the musical's anthem-like Seasons of Love), to the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, offering a rare chance to see the stars of a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical in the roles that made them famous.
``Rent changed everything,'' acknowledges Rapp from Des Moines, a stop on the tour he says he wouldn't be doing without Pascal. ``Before it, I hadn't worked in about a year. After, I worked for about five years straight. . . . It was so spoiling, doing quality work in that environment with those people. The only thing not good about it was that Jonathan died. It was our obligation, in the deepest sense, to carry on.''
For Pascal, Rent didn't just bring fame. It also altered his future.
``It opened me up to a career I belonged in but never considered til it fell into my lap,'' says Pascal, now married and the father of two boys. ``It took me out of the wrong career path and put me on the right one. It's given me every opportunity, even some I wasn't ready for, like a lot of big film opportunities, because I wasn't an actor at that time.''
A blend of Puccini and his source material (Henri Murger's Sce`nes de la vie de bohe`me) and Larson's life, Rent unfolds on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1980s, when an AIDS diagnosis often became a death sentence. Its characters -- including struggling artists, current and former addicts, lovers straight and gay -- learn to cherish and support each other, becoming an extended family in the face of poverty, dashed dreams and mortality confronted too soon.
Rapp, brother of novelist-playwright Adam Rapp, wrote about the sorrows and triumphs of his life and Rent in Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent. (He'll speak about the book and sign copies at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at a Books & Books event at Design within Reach Studio, 927 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.) He's working on turning the book into a solo show, but coming back to Rent -- he was in the 2005 movie version, returned to Broadway in 2007, played Mark in Tokyo and is doing this reunion tour for a bit more than a year -- doesn't get old.
``Playing Mark now, I feel like everything is simplified. Things get simpler as you get older,'' says Rapp, who at 38 is a year and a day younger than Pascal. ``Things settle and deepen. I remember it requiring more of an effort when I was younger.''
Both actors cite a list of post-Rent Broadway musicals that appeal to younger audiences -- including In the Heights, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and the upcoming American Idiot -- as shows for which Rent paved the way.
``Jonathan created his own style of melding rock/pop and musical theater,'' Pascal says.
Life has improved for many HIV patients, but Rent, like all great musicals, continues to resonate. Pascal still registers the intense reactions of audience members who, he thinks, probably knew someone who died of AIDS, and he believes the show's message of hope in the face of crisis is undiminished.
As for Rapp: ``Economic crisis and struggle is no longer a concept relegated to people in the corner,'' he says. ``It could happen to anyone.''
Caption: Anthony Rapp, left, and Adam Pascal bring Rent to the Fillmore Miami Beach. JOAN MARCUS
IF YOU GO
What: ``Rent'' by Jonathan Larson
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Dec. 13
Where: Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Info: 1-877-598-8698 or livenation.