Plays His Rent
HOLLYWOOD - Ten years ago, Taye Diggs was a struggling actor looking for his big break when he was cast in Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking musical, "Rent."
Inspired by Puccini's opera "La Boheme," "Rent" centered on eight East Village bohemians struggling to express themselves through their art while enduring the obstacles of poverty and illness in late '80s New York. The rock opera was an instant hit, winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, four Tonys and three Drama Desk awards.
Tragically, Larson died on the eve of the play's first preview, which only inspired the young cast even more. Every night for 16 months they performed the show as a memorial to its creator.
Now, Diggs and most of original cast members are back in a big-screen adaptation of the hit musical helmed by Chris Columbus ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Home Alone").
For Diggs, 33, reprising the role that launched his career was a can't-miss opportunity. Besides his fondness for his character, Benny, a once-struggling artist who married the landlord's daughter and nearly forgot about his friends, "Rent" will always have a special place in his heart. It is where he met actress Idina Menzel, who became his wife. Menzel reprises her role as the self-indulgent performance artist Maureen in the film.
Diggs has since gone on to a successful movie, TV and stage career, with credits that include "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Chicago" and the TV
series "Kevin Hill."
Currently starring in the off-Broadway production of "A Soldier's Play" (at New York's Second Stage Theatre through Nov. 27), Diggs explains what it
meant for him to return to "Rent."
How was it coming back to "Rent" after almost a decade?
It was straight-out fun. I had a wonderful time. The first time around, the show changed all of our lives. I got so much enjoyment from singing the
music. It obviously was emotional and such a visceral experience. To get that opportunity 10 years later, having grown as an actor and a singer -
just as a person - to get that opportunity once again and improve upon it, was such an amazing blessing.
Could you have watched someone else play Benny in the film version?
Before I saw the finished film, I could have, because I was kind of priming myself to do so. But having seen it, absolutely not. When I saw it for the first time, I told Chris I realized what everybody else was tripping about when they said that there was something so special about the chemistry of the original cast. Not to take anything away from other cast members who have played these roles, but there was definitely something special about the people who were cast originally. And even the new additions - Rosario (Dawson) and Tracie (Thoms) - the way they seamlessly joined the group, the fact that the rest of us were originals, I felt elevated by their performance as well.
How did you and Idina feel about working together on the film?
I don't think it hit us until we were on set, in costume, because then we were immediately teleported back 10 years. It made me, embarrassingly so, kind of giggly, because so much of my memory is through the music. When we started singing those songs together around the piano, it took me right back there, so it was great for our relationship.
Did you have to audition for Chris?
No. We spoke on the phone and that kind of served as a preliminary meeting. After that, it was all systems go.
Did you have apprehension about "Rent" being turned into a film?
Absolutely. At first I thought there was no way and no reason to try to re-create what we all had done on stage. We thought it almost was
sacrilegious. Once I realized that Chris was interested in using a lot of the same cast members, I realized that if this were to be made into a film,
a lot more people would be able to get the message of this amazing story. And, on another level, it was a prideful thing where I wanted to have something I could have in my hands to refer to _ to say to my grandkids, my children, even to me, I was a part of this.
With the success of "Chicago," did that make you confident that movie audiences were accepting of musicals?
You'd think. But part of the reason I think "Chicago" did so well is that (director) Rob Marshall made it more palatable for the viewers to transition from speaking to singing by making all the singing take place in fantasy, so it was easy for people to believe why a character would break out into song. But I knew that was a device that wasn't going to be used in "Rent," so I was wondering if people were going to buy into it: people just singing out of the blue.
What do you think of Chris' decision to add dialogue to the story?
I can't lie. I had doubts throughout. I didn't know if any of it was going to come through, but when I saw it, I bought into it. I went on the ride, and I'm sorry I doubted him. It's that simple.
How did you like the new arrangements by music producer Rob Cavallo?
I think it was better compared to the soundtrack of the original cast album of the show. Everything's crisper, a little louder. Everything has more bite. It's more lush and I think it's great that we have an actual rock producer that produced the album.
What do you think Jonathan Larson would have thought of the film?
I feel confident that he would have loved it. The fact that this is even getting made into a movie, he would have flipped out over. His family has been alongside us throughout the entire process. They loved it. They were moved, unbelievably so. I'd like to believe that he'd be ecstatic.
Did you make this before or after "Kevin Hill?"
I filmed part of this during the show's hiatus. After we finished "Kevin Hill," I came back (to complete "Rent").
A lot of viewers were disappointed when UPN canceled the show. Were you surprised that it was canceled after only one season?
No. On the inside, there had been struggles and disagreements from the very beginning. I'm surprised it lasted a full season, taking into account the
disarray that was going on behind the scenes. I just feel grateful that I had a season to get my toes in the water of series television. I had a great time with the cast. I worked with some wonderful people. I'm going to take this learning experience away with me for the next (series). We're developing another TV series as we speak.
You earlier mentioned having this film for future generations to see. Are you and Idina planning to start a family?
I would like to, but you've got to talk to the missus about that. She's the one making 'em. She's got her own career and she's doing very well in her
own right. I'm kind of on her clock right now.