On Wednesday, February 26, Agoura High School’s drama department, under the direction of David Krassner, will be staging the high school production of Rent, Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical updating of Puccini’s opera La Boheme that became a cause celebre and history-making production in 1996. The drama depicted in the musical was heightened by the sudden death of Larson, its visionary force, who died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on the eve of the first preview performance.
Gilles Chiasson, currently Director of Theatre Operations for the Performing Arts Education Centers at Calabasas and Agoura high schools, was a member of the ensemble in the original cast. We got a chance to chat with him about what the show meant to him and how it fits into the pantheon of great Broadway musicals.
VCOS: It’s been almost a quarter century since Rent made its debut and I wanted to find out how you think high school drama students should be relating to it in today’s world.
GILLES: There are a couple of issues with that. Here’s my belief on that. If you’re going to invest money in putting on a play, you should have an understanding of why it’s important in this moment and in this community. So when I was in Rent, it was important in New York in 1994, 1995, 1996, and now that it’s being done here, the play speaks to this group of kids and this community in a different way. So if you’re directing or working on a play or a musical, you should have an understanding of why it’s important to take this idea, these words, this music, and put it on stage and share it with this community. The other thing, in terms of working with kids, my experience is that when you work professionally, you’re surrounded by people who understand that their job is to come in and make choices and to understand how their character fits into the story and how it drives the larger story forward. With a lot of kids, you have to spend some time convincing them that they have that power to make their own decisions so that they get to the place where they start to argue with you about their particular moments, not in a disrespectful way but that they should bring their own points of view instead of just being told what to do.
VCOS: So how do you make this 25-year-old story relevant to their everyday lives?
GILLES: And why is it important to do this play in this community right now?
GILLES: Since my relevance to the actual production is really residual, I talked to them at their first rehearsal and told them some of the stories that went into the play and why it was important at the time when I did it, and having the luxury of working with Jonathan Larson on it as well as the original director. I actually did a bunch of different versions of it before it got to Broadway. There was a New York Theatre Workshop version of it in 1994 and then Jonathan did some substantial rewrites between 1994 and 1995 and I got to do two of those readings. And then in 1996 when we went to do the show on Broadway, Jonathan was still working on the play. On our first day of rehearsal, “Take Me or Leave Me” was one line in the script where it said only, “A song where Maureen and Joanne break up.” And we’re in rehearsal and Jonathan went to hear Idina Menzel sing with her band and stayed up all night and came in the next morning with “Take Me or Leave Me.” So I had the luxury of being part of that process.
VCOS: Can you talk about what happened when Jonathan died and how you found out about it?
GILLES: Jonathan passed away on the night of our final dress rehearsal and at that point, the play was over three hours long. There were a lot of things that were done by the New York Theatre Workshop to help us mourn Jonathan’s loss in a very quick way. They got in the morning after Jonathan passed away. He left the production meeting the night before, went home, and died at about 3 a.m. So the next morning, they called all of us so they could tell us before we got to rehearsal. I had an acting class that morning and there was someone else who had something as well so there were two of us they couldn’t call, so they actually put people at the end of the block on East. 4th Street to wait for us so that they could tell us before we got to the theatre for rehearsal. Then we all gathered at the theater and we just spent the day together. The theater spent the entire day calling everyone who had bought a ticket for that night, and they canceled that night’s first preview performance. And then they spent the rest of the day calling Jonathan’s friends and starting a phone tree that moved through New York City to invite anyone who knew Jonathan to come to the theater to hold a memorial for him. So by that night, the New York Theatre Workshop was filled and we just sang the show like a concert. We sat at tables with microphones and sang the show. By the time we got done with the first act, we were up and dancing and singing “La Vie Boheme” and actually moved the tables out and did the second act on our feet. So that was the initial reaction to his death. The next morning we had rehearsal and Jonathan’s parents flew in from New Mexico and they met with the artistic director and the director of the play and the assistant director and the musical director – and here I am paraphrasing – they said, “Jonathan trusted you with this play that he worked on for six years, and so we trust you. Do whatever you can to make it work.” Over the course of our rehearsal process they didn’t write any new material but they made cuts because the show was too long and so they did the work that Jonathan would have done himself.
They didn’t cut any songs; all the cuts were internal. “Tango: Maureen” used to have three verses so they cut one out. Things like that. So over time, they tightened up the play. When they moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway they cut one song, a song called “Door/Wall” that Roger sang, when he was deciding whether he should leave the apartment in the first act. Everything else was pretty much what it was. Then there were a few lines that they experimented with. There’s a line that someone in the support group says, “I’m a New Yorker. Here is my life.” It took them a long time to arrive at that line. Those were the only changes. It was just about all of these people who had been in the process with Jonathan for years, caring for his work and doing everything they could to make it successful and come to life.
At that point it was just an Off-Broadway play. We were making something like 250 bucks a week. It was not what it became. It was just us trying to make this production happen for him.
VCOS: Did his death affect the popularity of the show or was it going to be a success regardless?
GILLES: It’s hard to know. We all, of course, thought the play was amazing. When Jonathan won the Richard Rodgers Award, he got a big grant and brought the show to the New York Theatre Workshop and that’s when they did the production in 1994 with Michael Greif. So when they did that, we rehearsed for two weeks and then performed it for two weeks and you couldn’t get in. You couldn’t get a ticket. That’s when Jeffrey Seller and the other producers saw it and put in the seed money to do the Off-Broadway production. I think they had an idea of what it would be but it many ways, they were investing in Jonathan as a young writer, too. But what ended up happening was a confluence of events. By the time the show opened Off-Broadway, it was sold out. And the producers did not allow any photographs of the show. There were no images at all so you couldn’t see what it looked like, and they didn’t allow any television reviews. So it was this show that the New York theatre community was talking about but you couldn’t get a ticket for, so that created a real buzz about it. There was a guy whose name I don’t remember who was a buyer at Bloomingdale’s who saw the show and was very moved by it so he invited all his friends in the fashion industry. So if you look at the early press for Rent when it was running Off-Broadway, it’s Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Vanity Fare, magazines like that. The New York Times did some coverage, too, but a lot of the images of the show were basically of the costumes and the cast in the fashion magazines. Well, that started to build even more of a buzz and the producers, instead of allowing television reviews hired a filmmaker to come in and shoot B-rolls, home videos really, of us on stage doing the show and that became the only images of the show that were released finally, at the end of the Off-Broadway run. There were a lot of choices that were made that were very smart. By the time the decision was made to move it to Broadway, they had really paved the way for that really well.
But Jonathan’s death now is inseparable from the show, so there is no way to know – after Jonathan passed away we had that one night memorial for him and then we went right back into rehearsal, and then the press started happening. We’d do press during the day and the show at night and we were rehearsing the changes that were going in and we could tell that something was happening. There was a period on Sundays where every week, between shows on Sunday, someone would buy us dinner. One Sunday it was the producers from 60 Minutes and one Sunday it was somebody else. So we obviously understood that the show was becoming something big. But we were so immersed in it, it sort of happened around us and we were in this safe little bubble inside, just trying to discover and make the play as good as we could. For Jonathan, it went from being a job to being a mission. The play deals with Angel’s death and so Jonathan’s passing became part of the ethos of the play until today, they have become inseparable. The play is really about life. One of the lines is important because it was important to Jonathan: “To people living with living with living with. Not dying from disease.” And from his perspective and talking with him about it in rehearsal, it was a play about life, not a play about death.
VCOS: Did you get to know him well?
GILLES: Yeah, I knew him because I was part of the theater community. I would see him at parties, so I knew him. We weren’t close friends but he was certainly someone who I knew for a few years, and I did the workshop in ’94 and knew him from that process and then I came back in ’96 to do the Off-Broadway. There were three of us who did the workshop and also the Off-Broadway production: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp, and I were the ones who did both. All the other people from the Workshop chose not to do the Off-Broadway production.
VCOS: And you were in the ensemble in the Broadway production?
GILLES: Yes. I was Steve in the support group, I was the waiter, I was the squeegee man, and I understudied the two white guys.
VCOS: You’ve also played Mark and Roger, right?
GILLES: Yes. I understudied them – I think I did Mark about 30 times in my year-and-a-half and I went on for Roger three times. They actually wrote an article about me in the New York Times. They mentioned me as an understudy because I had moved on to and was in rehearsal for The Scarlet Pimpernel and that was when there was a flu that went all over Broadway and all the shows were hurting so I was rehearsing Scarlet Pimpernel and came back and did Mark in Rent a couple of times.
VCOS: Did you prefer one role over another?
GILLES: I really loved playing Mark. I love his character and had a great empathy for him and really understood him. I liked playing Roger but I think that Mark was a better fit for me. I think I went on for Roger because they had no other choice. There were other people who would go on but I was the “B” team- the “Plan B.” (laughs)
VCOS: Talk about being an ensemble performer. A lot of kids just starting out in theater think that working in ensemble is a second class position and that you should always strive to be a featured, named performer. What are the positive elements of that role?
GILLES: First of all, if you are an ensemble member, you have a much harder job than a person who is playing one of the more scripted characters, because if you’re in the ensemble, you have to be your own playwright. As an actor, a professional actor, when you’re on stage, you’re under the same obligation to answer all the questions about a character as the person who has a big part. You have to understand who you are, why you’re in that scene, what just happened that led you to be in that scene, who you have a relationship with, what it is you want to accomplish in the scene, and if you’re in the ensemble, and if you’re in an ensemble that is well directed, then you will be your own playwright and can answer all of those questions. So every moment that you have on stage has to be planned out. There is no standing in the back, killing time or filling up space when you’re working professionally. The work is rich and as deep as you make it. And as far as finding the value in it, every play is a story that has to be told and every person that participates in the telling of that story who has an understanding of what that story is and how they can contribute to it is an invaluable part of the team. So even if you’re not the person singing the song, if you’re on stage, you still have to understand what that song is about, why it’s important to the story, how it impacts you, and how your being there impacts it. That’s your obligation as a professional and that’s what makes the work rich and rewarding. Another thing about working professionally is that when you go out and audition for something, there are a thousand people in line with you. And if you’re lucky enough to get the job, you do the job as long as it’s fulfilling and then, if it’s not fulfilling, you move on and give that space to someone else who will be happy to have it. It just gets a little dark when people hang on to a job.
VCOS: Thank you so much for your memories of Rent and I hope Agoura’s production brings back some memories for you.
GILLES: It’s a funny thing. Ticket sales impact these programs in such a huge way that people don’t quite understand. Every seat that they fill is $10 less fundraising they have to do and it impacts the experience that the kids have. Performing to a half-empty house is not the same as performing to a full house. So anything I can do to help these programs, sell tickets, benefits everyone involved in a variety of ways.
Rent plays from February 26-29 at Agoura High School’s Performing Arts Education Center. For tickets, visit https://tickets.vendini.com/ticket-software.html?e=0ae74ec3a411d9180d451244986f07b9&t=tix&vqitq=3a559a70-bdb3-482e-8883-0cc79ce17d64&vqitp=dc3997e9-9691-4954-b950-fd91d3963f37&vqitts=1582239950&vqitc=vendini&vqite=itl&vqitrt=Safetynet&vqith=bc9af1805b1a779f028d59bf798bb7e4