“Rent” returns: Kaleb Wells on playing Roger Davis

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Twenty years ago, “Rent” took the stage and immediately stole our hearts. Combining the raw feelings of starving artists and those suffering from the AIDS epidemic with rock music, “Rent” has been capturing hearts and minds ever since.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning show, a national tour of the show, directed by Evan Ensign, has been announced.

I had the privilege of interviewing Kaleb Wells, who is playing Roger Davis in the Rent 20th Anniversary Tour.

How would you explain “Rent” to someone who’s never seen or heard of the musical before?

Wells: “The story of “Rent” is about a group of artists, some of them gay, some of them straight, some of them music performers, artists and filmmakers, who are struggling to live in the East Village [of New York City] in the late 80s, early 90s amid the terrifying AIDS epidemic. It really covers everything. It covers living as an artist, being true to yourself, being faithful to your art, while also being aware that terrible things are happening around you to people you don’t know and to people you love and friends of yours, and friends might die. [It’s about being] a human and an artist in that time period and in that struggle.

How did you originally get into theatre?

Wells: “I’m from a small part of New Hampshire, and there’s a great number of local theatres that have productions all the time. I grew up doing theatre as a hobby. My parents kind of wanted me to get my energy out because I was super loud, you know, making noise any time I could, because that was kind of my outlet: running around, getting my energy out, screaming, singing.”

How did you feel when you first heard that you were casted as Roger Davis for the Rent 20th Anniversary Tour?

Wells: “Oh man, it’s truly a dream come true, honestly. Like, I grew up with this show, I listen to it constantly in the car, I sing along with it. It’s certainly one of the dreams that I had, to just have the honor of bringing that story every night to people. You know, when I found out, it blew me away.”

You’re about to perform at your sixth location, so how does it feel to be travelling around the country?

Wells: “It’s great. There are a lot of places that I’ve never been to that I’m getting to check out, which is really nice. I’ve done some travelling before, but not really within the country. Our country is so big and so vast and so different, you know? People are different, the places are different. But the reaction to the show and the reception are very much the same. People are reacting very positively to it. It’s a message that I think needs to be heard, and it needs to be heard right now specifically, so I think a lot of people are happy that we’re coming through.”

In your opinion, how do the themes in “Rent” apply to the world today?

Wells: “I think it is a slice of time. It is very much a period piece, and it kind of has always been a period piece, but the themes are universal. They’re so human. Thankfully, AIDS is not as much of an issue. It’s not a death sentence anymore, but people are still suffering with it and living with it. But loss is always going to be there. Death is always going to be there. Creativity, passion, strive and poverty are going to be there. Homelessness is going to be there, so people are always going to have things to relate to. There’s so many messages right now that are preaching the exact opposite of this show, that are preaching hate and fear and xenophobia, painting the image that the world is this terrible place, and I think people need this message. Even if they’ve heard it a bunch of times, it’s always good to be reassured and hear this message of love and acceptance and living every day fully.”

So you mention a lot the different topics related to being an artist in “Rent.” What do you think the importance of being an artist actually is?

Wells: “One of the messages of “Rent” is to just do and to create and not try to be anything else but yourself. And I think that the interesting thing about “Rent” is that it is somewhat a little bit unfinished as a piece. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the composer and writer of it, Jonathan Larson, died very suddenly and very tragically from Marfan’s disease, so the show might have ended up a little bit different had he continued to live. But I think that part of the message is that your art is you, and as long as you do something that you are passionate about and you feel is your truth, that will always be art. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be real. It just has to be from yourself.”

In your opinion, what is one of the best songs in the show?

Wells: “One of the pieces that I resonate very strongly with and I believe I can always listen to is “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” in the second act, sung by our own Aaron Harrington who plays Tom Collins. It is just so visceral and beautiful and moving and lyrical, but also guttural and heart-wrenching. It’s a good song.”

How do you, personally, get into character and prepare for a show?

Wells: “Roger is kind of… he’s dealing with his own personal battles. I am very much friends with every single person in this cast, and I love to hang out with them and have fun with them, but it is kind of hard to go on stage with that energy, like, friendship and bonding and then kind of have to sit by yourself for a while. I’ll usually take a moment before I go on stage just for a bit, collect my thoughts, be by myself and be OK being by myself. I kind of discover the friendships on stage naturally.”

What has it been like to work with Evan Ensign, Danny Harris Kornfeld and the rest of the cast and crew?

Wells: “Fantastic. Every single person in the cast and the crew and the production team and creative team are all wonderful, giving people. They have a such positive energy, high energy, passionate energy, which I think is the most important thing. Every single person shows up every single day wanting to do their job, wanting to do their job to the best of their ability and there’s such a passion for the show and you really feel it. Everyone, no matter who they play or what their position is in the show, is ready to do “Rent” justice and to bring the story to the best of their ability. It’s such an honor to be working with such talented, passionate people.”

What makes musical theatre so distinguished from different art forms?

Wells: “I think musical theatre, when it’s done well, is one of the all-inclusive performing arts. It has to be emotionally connected. I find that a lot of musicals are very surface level, very entertaining, very song and dance. But a musical that is really emotionally connected and tells a story that needs to be told tells it through so many different disciplines. You have music, you have acting, you have dancing, you have the set design, you have costume design, you have lighting, you have sound, you have every single sense telling that story in a different way and being informed by different art forms. And when they work together, “Rent” is one of those shows that works. It is a full-body, full-sensory experience that tells a story I don’t think can be told in any other art form.”

What is one of the funniest things that’s happened on the tour so far?

Wells: “One of the first buses that we took from the airport ended up breaking down on the side of the road twice, and it was one of our first stops so the cast hadn’t really been on a bus together. We had been in rehearsals and stuff but to have that sense of humor of breaking down and having to restart the bus with people who you kind of just met was a really funny experience, and we had a lot of good laughs.”
For more information regarding show dates, visit playbill.com/article/rent-20th-anniversary-tour-launches-tonight

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