The Tony® and Pulitzer Prize Award winning Broadway smash hit that defined a generation is ready to welcome audiences to a strictly limited Adelaide season. RENT tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in NYC’s East Village in the thriving days of bohemia, Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/ AIDS. Awarded the Tony® for Best Musical, this brand new production creatively led by Benjamin Maio Mackay and Matt Ralph, starring Lindsay Prodea, Tate Simpson and Cassandra Haines is sure to capture the hearts and minds of audiences once again. Viva
La Vie Bohème!
Set against the backdrop of mainland Australia’s oldest theatre, The Queens Theatre, SA’s largest ever production of RENT is ready to take to the stage. Produced by 5 Quarter and Preachrs Productions and proudly supported by SAMESH (South Australia Mobilisation + Empowerment for Sexual Health) the show will be donating $1 from every ticket sold to the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, an organisation helping South Australians living with HIV/AIDS. Hi Fi Way had the privilege of interviewing this amazing cast including Benjamin Maoi Mackay (Director/ Co-Producer and plays Roger), Lindsay Prodea (who plays Mark) and Tate Simpson (who plays Mimi).
Is there no better feeling than performing in a musical such as RENT?
Tate: There really isn’t! With such a rollercoaster of events and emotions that these characters go through, it takes you on a quite a journey. This is my first show coming back from a bit of a hiatus in musical theatre so to be able to do such an iconic show, surrounded by such talented people, is really special.
Benjamin: There’s no better feeling than performing in general and this show is an honour to be a part of. It’s such an emotional and powerful work and the leads in this show are a family, so it’s been especially lovely the last couple of weeks of rehearsals to feel that genuine familiar connection build between the cast.
Lindsay: Musical theatre people are a bit of a different breed; for many people it would seem terrifying to step onto the stage and sing in front of a crowd but for me it’s exhilarating. I must admit that when I first started performing in high school, my body would shake and my voice would tremble. But having done this for a little while now, I embrace those nerves and I truly love bringing a great show to an audience. Rent is one of those shows that becomes truly special as it’s such a great cast, team and is very close to my heart. I’m so excited to bring it back to Adelaide audiences.
It must be great also that live theatre is returning like it was pre-pandemic?
Tate: There are certainly many changes, not only as an audience member but as a cast member as well. We all want to keep healthy and enforce a community that people feel safe coming into. Seeing the first show since shutdowns carried such an overwhelming feeling of joy and relief. Every show we’ve seen this year has been accompanied by the words ‘I’m just so glad it’s all coming back’.
Benjamin: I’ve missed it so much, theatre is the reason I get up in the morning, it gives me so much joy to create, work on and see theatre. It’s a unique medium because you get to perform the show in narrative order (unlike TV or film), so you really do go through the emotional journey of your character. Secondly you get an instant response and connection with your audience, which is truly magical. I’m really thankful we’re now able to get back on stage in a production of this scale and perform to audiences again.
Lindsay: It has been a long couple of years. So many cancellations and gigs that never happened. I’m so thrilled that we’ve now got the opportunity to finally get back on stage. More importantly, it becomes more financially viable to put on shows, as now we’re no longer limited to reduced audience capacities.
Do you feel any pressure playing your role in this iconic production?
Tate: I definitely do. So many people have such a deep connection to this show, you want to put out the best version you possibly can. Taking on the songs is one thing but having the ability to portray the emotional journey in a way that the audience can connect to is something I’ve been trying to focus on.
Benjamin: There’s absolutely pressure, taking on anything within such an iconic show brings expectation and that’s always hard. For me, it’s about bringing my unique version of Roger to the stage. It’s not creatively interesting for me or audiences if I were to imitate any of the performers who’ve played him before. I built my version of him from the ground up and it’s absolutely a challenge, but one I was happy to take on. He’s such a conflicting human, he’s rarely a good person and finding the things that motivates his decisions has been an interesting journey. Most importantly I’ve had to learn to like him, which has been its own unique process.
Lindsay: The main pressure I feel is that which I put on myself to give the best performance I can. However, Rent is such a well known show in the theatre community that there are high expectations that we as performers do it justice. There are also die hard fans who know every word of every song, and I want to make sure I live up to expectations!
How do you make the role your own?
Tate: It’s always difficult when so many talented actors have put their hand into a role. You end up with this amalgamation of interpretations from different actors that you want to strive to emulate without making a carbon copy. I have a lot of similarities with Mimi, so I feel like I connected with her very quickly. Her playful side is something I’ve been having a lot of fun with but settling into the side she doesn’t like to show, that vulnerability, has been the most important aspect of finding her true motivations.
Benjamin: I’ve very purposefully not engaged with any previous versions of the show since we started working on it, so there’s nothing locked in my mind for me to subconsciously copy. That was important from day one. I’ve also mapped out Roger’s emotional journey as I see it from start to finish and through each song – that’s helped me create a clear version of him that’s very much mine. But also, the great thing about working opposite such talented performers, who are all also making the roles their own, is that you get to react to their choices and that helps create a unique version of Roger too.
Lindsay: The role I’m playing, Mark, acts as the narrator for the audience but is also a character in the thick of the story. For me, I don’t want to just repeat what others have done, so my way to make the character my own is to learn the majority of the material early in the rehearsal process. This way, I don’t have go back and look at how others have played the role before and I can bring my own emotions and life experiences to the performance. You start to forget how others have done it, and start to rely on your own instincts.
What is your favourite moment in RENT?
Tate: La Vie Boheme is such an obvious choice. Everyone is having a good time and the song itself is such a proverbial middle finger to those that look down on anyone for being out of the norm. But it does share top spot with ‘Without You’. It’s such a tender, honest moment for Mimi, and an incredibly beautiful song to sing. Though it’s much more sombre than the more upbeat songs of the first act, the complexity of emotions running through her mind and the decision to embrace her feelings for Roger make it such a special moment for me.
Benjamin: I have many, La Vie is a lot of fun, but I think the songs Goodbye Love and Without You are the highlights for me. They’re the emotional pinnacles in the show and the tension in the room is so perfect. The cast just perform them so well, the emotions are absolutely real. There have been few rehearsals were genuine tears weren’t shed.
Lindsay: My favourite moment is a song called What you Own. By this point in the show, the characters have been through a lot. Mark is at a crossroads between choosing to fulfil his own artistic dreams versus “selling” out for a corporate job, but it also struggling with the prospect of losing people close to him. It’s also a bangin’ tune!
What do you hope audiences take away from the experience?
Tate: RENT is about people. It’s about the complex relationships between friends, the dynamics that shift between lovers, tragedy of heartbreak and loss, and the struggles that your neighbour might be going through. If you can take away a single thing about the show, I hope it would be to cherish the friends that stand beside you. Embrace and empathise with others, no matter what walks of life they come from.
Lindsay: For those who know the show, I hope we bring new meaning to the material and these famous characters and songs. But for those who don’t know the show, I think it’s going to be a very special experience. The show is so unique, and it’s really a rollercoaster of emotion. I hope it allows people to reflect on their lives and the value of the time we have; the value of a minute; an hour; a year. Who knows how much time we all have left?
Benjamin: I want audiences to connect with the characters and story. Whatever that looks like for each individual person I want them to go on an emotional journey with us.
How do you study/ prepare for the role?
Tate: We have some amazing people on our production team that have provided incredible direction whilst still allowing us to settle into the characters shoes ourselves. For me, it was mapping out Mimi’s actions that are shown both on and off stage and understanding a lot of the subtext featured in act 2 as to why she makes the choices she does, in both her own personal journey and the relationship between her and Roger.
Benjamin: There’s the literal preparation of learning lines, music and blocking – but that’s the (somewhat) easy part. The mental preparation for me, is building the character in your head and learning to inhabit him in an authentic way. Roger is so different to who I am that it takes time to shape a fully three dimensional character. I have to know him and understand his choices as much as I understand by own, so it’s a lot of time thinking, writing notes and looking into Jonathan Larson’s friends (upon who all the characters are based).
Lindsay: I’m not going to lie, when I first read and sang through the script, it was a little intimidating. The sheer amount of lyrics and songs to learn was huge. Even the scenes are sung-through, so we’ve had to learn melodies and timing in conjunction with our fellow actors. I’ve had to break it down into small chunks and focus on one scene at a time to avoid being overwhelmed. But I also have my own kooky ways to learn, for example going lap swimming with the lyrics at the end of the pool, and reciting them in my head as I swim!
I have also been reading the autobiography of the original actor who workshopped and played my role on Broadway, Anthony Rapp. It’s been fascinating to read Anthony’s thought processes as he learned and experienced the role. It’s also given some really great insight into the intentions of Jonathan Larson, the composer, which has been very helpful in developing my portrayal of Mark.
What does the legacy of RENT mean to you?
Tate: I keep saying that the show is so special because sometimes I can’t find any other words to describe how much it means to me. Having a show with such prolific queer representation that reflects so many people working in the arts, and this production especially, is so important. You see parts of yourself or your friends in these characters who are unashamedly themselves. Even though they screw up and break up and fight, in the end they are all still there for each other when it matters. It’s such a genuine human experience that so many people have connected to.
Benjamin: As a queer person, RENT is a show that means everything to me. The passion, vitality and meaning behind the show is so significant not just to me, but to the wider community. Jonathan Larson once said that he wrote this show so his friends’ legacies wouldn’t be forgotten and that’s something I think about with every creative decision we make. We’re not going to let Jonathan or RENT fans down. The legacy of RENT is queer community.
Lindsay: Rent is a landmark show in musical theatre history. When it was released, there was nothing else like it and there still hasn’t been a show that’s come close. Jonathan Larson, the composer, grew up through the AIDS epidemic, and brought a visibility to the issues of people who are queer, gender diverse or “different.” A lot of the messages are still very relatable today, and I feel really lucky to be part of such a famous piece.
Do you think the ambience of Queens Theatre adds to the production?
Tate: The Queen’s is such an amazing venue tucked quietly into a corner of the CBD, it’s very inconspicuous from the outside. Even as an empty shell, it has this magical quality of hidden potential. Combining that feeling with the exposed bricks and metal piping that we heavily associate with industrial New York, the set will certainly feel at home there. Our own little New York City in the backstreets of Adelaide.
Benjamin: Absolutely – the building is so perfect to recreate 80s New York City. My co-producer Matt and I choose the venue very specifically. It really fits the needs of the show and gives us a beautiful authentic backdrop to take audiences back to 1989.
Lindsay: I’ve never performed in a space like the Queens, and I’m so excited. The space will bring grit and reality to the show that you just wouldn’t be able to get in a traditional theatre. It’s the perfect spot for this show and I think the audience is in for a real treat!
Interview By Rob Lyon
RENT previews October 6 and runs for a strictly limited season, October 7-15, at The
Queens Theatre in Adelaide. Tickets start at $35.00 and are on sale now from rentadl.au.