That wish is coming true with the upcoming production of the Jonathan Larson Pulitzer-winning musical, being staged by From Stage To Screen Studios and presented at Five Towns College in Long Island, July 28–30.
"It's certainly the show I'm most familiar with," says Pascal, in maybe the understatement of the year. An original cast member of the 1996 cultural touchstone musical, Pascal was Tony-nominated for his leading role as Roger, the resident struggling musician of the show's East Village bohemia. He reprised his role for the 1998 West End transfer, for the 2005 film, and for a 2009 tour (all alongside his original costar Anthony Rapp as Mark Cohen).
Because of Rent's immediate and widespread success, Pascal and his cast mates were almost indelibly linked to the show. It was difficult for them to be seen as anything other than Roger and Mark, and Mimi and Maureen. "When you have a success like that, and it's at the beginning of your career, you naturally, to a certain degree, want to distance yourself from it. Because you don't want people to think that's the only thing you're capable of, or that's the only success you'll ever have," he admits.
Pascal's relationship to the musical, though, has evolved and morphed over the years. During the early days in his solo music career, he would often get requests to perform "One Song Glory," his big solo number from Rent. But he wanted to perform his own songs rather than any tunes from the musical.
"I really shunned that stuff. But the reality is, all I was doing was punishing the audience. It took me a while to internalize and accept that and be OK with that. And to understand that, you know, you are an entertainer, and your number one job is to entertain an audience," he says. "It took some life, and it took some maturity, and it took some wisdom to get to that place."
Pascal fully embraces his relationship to the musical now. He knows what it did for his career, and he recognizes how much the musical means to so many people. "I'm so proud and grateful and honored at my enduring connection to this show. Purely. There's no 'buts.' There's no 'and.' There's no 'also.' It's just that. It really is," he says.
It's also fair to say that Pascal's name attached to any Rent project would bring in the crowds. It was no different when auditions for the From Stage To Screen production were announced. Over 600 young actors auditioned, from not only Long Island, but from as far away as Las Vegas and Florida, too. The production has expanded the ensemble to about 25 so that they could include more of the enthusiastic auditioners.
Rent made its Broadway debut over 25 years ago. It was written before some of the actors in this production were even born. And some might say that it is very much "of a time." It is set in 1989-90 around Manhattan's East Village and Alphabet City when the once "undesirable" neighborhood was seeing an influx of struggling artists and musicians, and the beginning of gentrification. The characters in Rent are those young bohemians. They sing freely about their sexuality and drug use, and, for many, of their HIV+ status. One wonders how much a Gen Z cast would know of the time, when open sexuality and "coming out" were more rare, and AIDS and HIV were still widely misunderstood. Pascal thinks they don't need to have a deep understanding.
Rent stands on its emotional core more than its surface story. "It's about love and acceptance, and friendship and joy, and overcoming obstacles and overcoming adversity. And about moving on with life in the face of these adversities, and the loss of loved ones and friends. These are all universal themes that are timeless. Ultimately, that's what continues to resonate," says Pascal. "The timeframe, and the location and all that stuff in which the show was actually set become somewhat incidental. They just become the tools in which to tell this much broader story."
Being in the director's chair (not only for this production, but also as he has led workshops and masterclasses over the years) has given Pascal even more perspective on his own time in the show as a young artist, providing him with wisdom to impart upon his young cast about the separation of artist and subject.
"I always say to them, 'Don't saddle yourself with the concept like, 'I'm putting on an important show, and that I am responsible for shouldering an important message that the audience needs to embrace or absorb— that they need to leave somehow changed,'" says Pascal. "That's not your responsibility as actors and performers to do that. So don't put that level of importance on this show. Your job is to tell the story, have fun, and do it to the best of your ability, as professionals. And not to burden yourself."
The lesson was hard-learned by Pascal, who felt responsible after the death of Jonathan Larson to tell his friend's story right. "We felt that burden. Now, to a certain degree, it was merited, because Jonathan died. And the audiences that were coming at the time were so filled with people who had lost loved ones and friends and family to HIV and AIDS," he recalls.
"It was burdensome to (I'll speak for myself, to me) to carry that with every performance—and to know that there were people in the audience that had heard, 'Your life's gonna be changed when you go see this show.' So I knew that the audience was coming in expecting that. I don't want my cast, or any cast, to feel that they need to shoulder the burden to accomplish that. That's definitely one of the things that I've come to over the years in terms of my clarity about the show."
Ultimately, Pascal is enjoying adding his own spin to this production of Rent. He's loving working with his cast and watching them meet and connect with the characters that he's now known for over half his life, now through the eyes of a new generation.
"I get choked up during rehearsal at times when I'm watching these kids," he says. "Now, whether I'm getting choked up legitimately at what they're doing in the moment, or I'm getting choked up because it's evoking a memory of my own of my experience in this show...? It's two-fold."
Tickets to Rent directed by Pascal is available here.