Twenty years after RENT: A Conversation with MJ Rodriguez

In which we discuss Angel, R&B, periods of transition, legacies, and coming to terms with our identities.

I distinctly remember being in middle school, watching RENT under my covers at a far-too-late hour, so that my parents wouldn’t know I was indulging in this musical that so thoroughly and unapologetically tackles issues of identity, sexuality, AIDS, drugs, and other things that I didn’t quite understand at age eleven. (This is the same way I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, FYI: discreetly and without my parents’ permission, although now in retrospect I know that they wouldn’t have cared at all in either case.) Sure, the time period and location seemed foreign to me as a suburban sixth grader, but the themes were all too real. I was coming to terms with my sexuality (a process that would take at least seven more years), and I was in that phase (was it a phase?) of hating my hometown.

When I graduated from elementary school, we sang “Seasons of Love.” (Unironically of course. At that time we thought leaving elementary school was the end of the world.)

When my parents wouldn’t let me skip middle school to get away from bullies and teach myself in my own sort of Vie Boheme, I sang the lyrics, “To days of inspiration/Playing hookey, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express-/To communicate,/To going/against the grain,/Going insane, going mad,” over and over again.

In high school when I got stood up on a date by a pretty girl, instead of getting sad, I spent days angry singing “Take Me or Leave Me.” (I also felt very risque at this time tweeting lyrics to the song that hinted at my sexuality.)

(image via Twitter)

It’s cheesy and funny and lame, perhaps, to admit all of these instances of resonating with RENT (the musical that the terrible Marnie also resonates with so deeply). But I thoroughly believe that without this musical, I probably wouldn’t be the same person. And I surely wouldn’t have come to terms with my many identities nearly as early in life as I did.

And in talking with the wonderful and beautiful MJ Rodriguez, I learned she experienced similar things growing up with this musical.

MJ, who has guest starred in the Carrie Diaries and Nurse Jackie, played her largest role to date in the Off-Broadway Revival of RENT five years ago. According to MJ, the role of Angel spoke to her at age eleven, and continued to influence her life, through her first acting roles, through her transition, and now in her life post-RENT.

And though it’s been twenty years since RENT’s first production, MJ – the Clive Barnes Award Winner – believes the revolutionary nature of the musical will live on.

Morgan Vickers: How did you get started in acting and musical theater?

MJ Rodriguez: You know something, musical theater kind of just happened. Specifically, I went to school for jazz-R&B, mostly R&B. So musical theater was a part of my childhood, but it was almost, for me, an extracurricular to what I was learning, as far as R&B, as another aspect of music.

And then, around the middle of my college year, I was at the Berklee College of Music [in Boston], I was like, “Hmm… This is really cool. I’m feeling it. I think I want to do this, touch a little upon this again.” So, an opportunity arose when I did a production of RENT at a place called NJPAC, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and I played Angel there. And I was like, “Oh my god. Wow, I’m so glad I’m playing this. This is my dream role. I think I’m going to get a little more into musical theater.” And then it just went from there.

After that, I went to audition for RENT Off-Broadway.

MV: Do you remember the first time that you saw RENT?

MJR: Actually, I don’t… Well, let’s see. I remember seeing RENT when I was eleven years old. I know I was a kid; I wasn’t even a pre-teen yet. It was normal to me, but it was also eye opening for me as a kid.

MV: Yeah exactly. The first time I saw RENT was probably around when I was eleven or twelve, too, and I’m gay so that was around the time that I was coming to terms with my sexuality. And the thing that resonated with me a lot was seeing Joanne and Maureen on screen, and at that time I thought it was revolutionary because I hadn’t seen anything like that on screen or on stage before.

So I wanted to know – at the time you saw it or later on – at what point did you feel like you resonated with Angel, or at what point were you thinking that this was your dream role?

MJR: When I was eleven, that’s when it happened. I knew I wanted to play Angel, and, most importantly, I wanted to move forward in my journey as something that was like Angel’s.

When I was chosen for Off-Broadway, one I was ecstatic because it was my dream role, but also I had to deal with kind of the segue into me moving forward in my journey as a transgender woman.

It was pretty impactful. It impacted me pretty heavily, as far as personally, as well as just the storyline itself is heavy.

MV: Before this interview, I was reading a Broadway Buzz article about you during your role as Angel, pre-transition. A little while ago you talked about how it was your dream role for a long time and you knew that Angel resonated with you from a very young age. So was your transition something that corresponded with your role as Angel, or did it occur separate from your Off-Broadway tour?

MJR: I would have to say, I mentally started transitioning towards the ending of RENT. A lot of people did not know, and within the time that I had by myself – in my little cave, in my little hibernation – is when I started moving forward initially in my transition. And then I just recently started physically – you know, hormone therapy – about two months ago.

I’ve always wanted to do that, but I felt – as an actor – it was important to uphold a look of what my fans wanted. They wanted to seen Angel, and so I was like, “Look, this is what I have to do.” And being that it was my job as an actor, I had to please the people; I couldn’t just do something so drastic [while in that role] and have them think, “Oh my god.” Let’s be honest: even though Angel was dressing up as female, he was still a drag queen; that was still considered a drag queen. Especially at that time – five years ago – transgender women were not put in the light that they are now.

It was also out of fear. I was definitely scared. I wanted to be able to tweet at my fans, make them happy.

MV: So five years ago when you were playing this role, you were twenty. That, for anyone, is a big point of transition in their life. So what was that like, taking on a touring role at twenty years old?

MJR: I was like, “These are some huge, huge shoes to fill. And I don’t know if I’m going to be able to fill them. I don’t know if I’m going to need to stuff them with some socks.” (laughs) My head was busting with [questions of] “How am I going to make people happy?” or “Are people going to be like ‘Oh, that’s not what she did in the show before.’” My mind was full of so many things [at that time].

MV: What type of legacy and impact do you think that RENT has had, especially now that it’s celebrating its twentieth anniversary?

 MJR: I think the legacy of RENT is the way it changes lives, the way it opens minds up, the way it creates a space of comfort and togetherness. That is the legacy of RENT, and I think it will always carry out that way. And I feel like the people who go and see it who have never seen it, or the people who go and see it that have constantly seen it – I feel like there will always be something that helps them grow more as a person when they see this show.

MV: What are you up to now, and what plans do you have for the future?

MJR: I’ve been auditioning like crazy, and I’ve done a few things here and there recently, and I’m very happy with that.

I hope – I really do hope – that at some point in my life, I would like to be known as one of the first open transgender women in a Broadway show. I think that would be a great way of advocating for anyone in the LGBT community, but specifically for my trans brothers and sisters, [telling them] that it’s okay for them to come out and audition for shows. It’s based upon your talent or not about your looks or how you identify gender-wise or based on your orientation. It doesn’t matter.

I hope that I can move forward and possibly be a source for my whole community.

Published by morganpvickers

still figuring it all out.

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