Tracie Thoms: RENT's 'Dream Girl'
If Tracie Thoms' life was written as an old fashioned Broadway musical it would go something like this, 'Girl wants role, girl doesn't get role, girl REALLY wants role, girl finally gets role and then girl REALLY gets role…again.'
Sound complicated? Not so much. Tracie originally auditioned for the role of Joanne in the stage production of RENT but did not get cast at that time. In a satisfying karmic twist, Thoms was later cast as Joanne in the film version of RENT and has now returned to the stage to recreate the very role that eluded her those years ago in the final Broadway cast of RENT. It seems that this Baltimore, Maryland native and Julliard graduate was fated to play the role of Joanne on the Broadway stage. Nothing seems to slow her rapid rise as a performer as Tracy has continued to thrive on stage, TV and film and currently stars as Kat Miller on the hit CBS series COLD CASE. BroadwayWorld caught up with her and we spoke at length about her thrilling and inspiring 'Quest for Joanne'...
Eddie Varley: Here you are, once again bringing Joanne Jefferson to life, this time on stage, finally performing the role you've dreamt of for so long on the Nederlander Theatre stage.
Tracie Thoms: It's surreal, truly surreal. As people might know I had gone in for the role many times, but I think I was just too young, I don't think I was ready for it , I was very enthusiastic, they liked me, they kept calling me back every year, they just wouldn't cast me! So I was just giving up on my "quest for Joanne" , then the movie came along, and I decided that would be the last time going in for Joanne ever, that time for Chris Columbus (Director of the Rent film), and I got it.
EV: Winning the film role was such a victory for you, but what a long road it was to finally get there.
TT: That was surreal, and now to be in the final cast on Broadway is even more surreal, most people would think it would be the other way around, they'd do the show first then do the movie, if that ever happened, if they did both.
EV: Rarely does it go the other way around. As you went forward you built an multi-layered and successful career, you weren't waiting around in between Joanne auditions, yet the role was "always there", it continued to be a "quest" as you described it earlier. But how wonderful for an actor, to then win the film role of Joanne, that was huge.
TT: I can't, I…it's all, it's…if you had told me, standing in line in 1997, standing in line, all night long in the cold, to audition at 440 Lafayette , I drove all night from DC, cause I was doing Joseph there, I had two shows, I got in a car afterward with my friends and we drove up and got there around four or five am…and lost my voice. It was a journey just to get there, the line wrapped all the around to the McDonalds on 8th St. And I stood in line all morning until probably about noon, it was right around then that I lost my voice, so I had to get in the car and go back home.
EV: Did you always aspire to perform in musicals when you were younger?
TT: I remember when I saw Les Miz when I was around thirteen, and I was like, 'On my God, I need to do musical theater', and then nothing else really effected me that way until I saw RENT. Because there was an important story attached to the whole thing, and there was a role in it that I felt I could do, you know…also there are a lot of shows I love, Once On This Island and Dreamgirls, and I've done those shows. But with RENT there was this role I could do, there was this story and it moved me, it was very strange for something to really move me, as I'm sobbing out there in the audience, because I'm not that girl.
EV: Finding the role that forever dooms you, it grabs you…
TT: I was like that about Les Miserables for awhile, but I had to comes to terms with the fact at that time they weren't looking to put black people into Les Miz…
EV: Now it's open to everybody!
TT: I know, they finally got multi culti, but at the time they weren't doing that yet, unless you were a huge star, and I was ,ok, I get that, it's France, I get it, and I was able to sing the music from Les Miserables all the time, so that was enough for me. With RENT it was the whole story, it wasn't necessarily just Joanne either , you know, was I going maybe, I could play Mimi, but I got it at the time that Mimi was Latin, period. So it was Joanne, that's me, that's my part. And I'm gonna get it, I really didn't focus on the description that Joanne was a lawyer, had already graduated Harvard and was 22, I didn't care!
EV: That was just going to be your character.
TT: That was just going to be my character, right, I got her, I understood her, I'm a control freak like her. I just 'got her', so I started that quest, and auditioned probably about 9 times, which when you are a musical theater actor in New York City, is actually not a lot of time when you are auditioning for a certain part.
EV: A good friend auditioned for the original production of Les Miz 17 times!
TT: Yeah, it's not a lot, so people, if they are not in the circuit here think it is a lot of times auditioning, but its actually not. Some of the people in the cast now are like it was my 12th audition by time I got the show. It was more the fact that it was over such a long period of time, I my first audition for RENT was, well I had originally saw it in January 1997, and my first audition was in April of that year, it was still cold.
EV: It was such an early time regarding Rent itself …
TT: Right, it was, they had just won the Tony and the original cast was still in it, and they were just trying to replace the original cast, so those first replacements were like a carbon copy of the original actors in some ways, to serve the characters the same way. But eventually, over time, they started exploring other ideas, and then I auditioned again that summer for it. In the meantime I had gotten the invite to join the class at Julliard that year, but I was so burnt out, because I was at Howard University at the time and I just didn't feel like going to school again, but it was Julliard so I pretty much had to go..
EV: When you get that nod you really do have to go be a part of it.
TT: You have to do it, but the only thing that would of stopped me honestly was RENT, I had thought well, If I get RENT, I would won't go, I'll skip Julliard and go straight to Broadway, or whatever…and I got until the final call back that time, that final audition was with Michael Greif. Again I was doing a show in DC at the same time, I was doing HAIR, and lost my voice again! But, the week before that audition it was very weird , all the signs were telling me, 'not yet'.
EV: Fate protects you sometimes, it keeps you from what you truly want until you are ready, and now look, the film role, the final cast, it was fated.
TT: I know, its really a lot, it's a little overwhelming sometimes, my first show which was a Saturday, I was in a daze, I couldn't believe I was up there…I just couldn't believe that I was up there, I almost blew my voice out I was so excited! And I had another show at night, I was like, 'Oh my God, I don't want to ruin myself first show!' Starting the show on a four show weekend was crazy too, most people they begin on a Monday, you know you build up to a four show weekend.
EV: Work for it lady, here is your dream role, but work for it!
TT: Yeah, we're gonna make you work for it, and kill you in the process (laughs) I was completely drained, I had never even experienced that kind of exhaustion, I went out and there was people, actually we had a talk back after that performance and someone asked "How do you sustain?" and I was like, 'This is my first show, that was my first, so I can't even answer that yet!' And I went out after and there were people waiting at the stage door, I signed autographs for all the great fans who were there for my first performance, it was overwhelming. I went home and laid down for an hour and went back for the evening performance.
EV: I bet you find yourself stepping outside your body taking notes on all this at times, sometimes even during a performance.
TT: That happened and it still happens, Rodney Hicks in the show, he's a very good friend of mine, we did a workshop of a show about six years ago, he's been a very close friend. And with everything with the final cast going on, and of course him being an original Broadway cast member, he'd say, 'you should be in the final cast', and I'd also go ',oh ok', but it could never work with my schedule. They were supposed to originally end in March, actually right after the RENT film came out they offered me the show, but I was already on Cold Case and I couldn't do it. You know, after being involved with the film, with the people who inspired me to do it in the first place, doing that, if I was going to do it on Broadway it had to be a really special circumstance, for me. Like when Adam and Anthony came back last year, I was like, 'Ooh I want to do it with them!', but I couldn't because of Cold Case. Then when I found out RENT was closing my heArt Started beating, I wanted to be part of the final cast, but I didn't know if it was going to work, and my friends were telling me to, you know, 'let it go'...then out of nowhere, you know, I got an email asking if I was interested in closing it, in being a part of the final cast. My answer was 'yes, yes, YES', and it overlapped two weeks with Cold Case, the last two weeks I'm doing double duty with both, but everybody over at Cold Case thinks it's fantastic, they are so proud of me, so they're helping me work the schedule out.
EV: You've created a character in Kat Miller that's very special too on Cold Case.
TT: I've played many characters who are very different, and that's something I'm really proud of, it's weird I've got these two characters now and they are so different from one another. I mean, Kat Miller, she's a mess. Kat Miller's a mess! Joanne, well they are both very no nonsense kind of women, I tend to play tough chicks and I'm so not that girl!
EV: Very often we win the roles that are nothing like us, and it starts to define who 'we' are to people, when it's nothing like the real you.
TT: Total opposite of who I really am, the part that is probably most like who I am is in The Devil Wears Prada. That girl in the film is me, there was no acting involved (Laughs)!
EV: Yet, all these roles are 'you' and informing your current performance as Joanne, they've all led to this, which is I'm sure a very different Joanne then you would of played if you had gotten the role when you were younger, it's different from your creation of Joanne in the Rent film too I would imagine.
TT: It is a different Joanne in the movie
EV: Tell me about that transformation from playing her on film, to bringing her to the stage, the choices that you make, the organic things that happen as you start that process.
TT: You know, it's sort of 'A', I just don't want to do it the same way, I couldn't do that every night, every performance you know, like a revisiting of that version, a couple years later. It had to be real. And while I might feel, oh I'm making the usual choice there, I never can, it's always a real and unusual choice, especially singing the role. I'm singing it opposite Eden Espinosa, in the movie it was with Idina Menzel, which was formidable itself. In singing opposite Eden, its, Eden has a freakish voice, I mean it is just stupid really, hah, I don't know how she makes the sounds she makes!
EV: I know!
TT: And it doesn't seem to cost her anything to do it, I mean I know it has to because it's hard, so logically it has to cost her something, but she makes these noises, and they are beautiful and crystal clear and perfection ever time. And it's already heightened when Take Me As I Am begins as it is, we love to call it our 11 o'clock number, because it comes so late in the show. You have scene, scene, scene, scene until then, you know, you have Rent, Tango: Maureen, Will I?, We're Okay, La Vie Boheme, all that stuff be that song. Once I get to the last part of that song, once I get to where we are singing, "Take me baby…"at the end, once I get to there, I have that break after in my head, even though I sing in the I'll Cover You: Reprise with Collins, but I, you know, take a breath!
EV: Singing with a different partner shapes everything, and it changes how you relate emotionally regarding the relationship.
TT: It changes, the relationship between Maureen and Joanne is constructed differently on stage than it is in the movie, in the musical, it's always been difficult for when I was watching the musical, even though I always wanted to play this role, I felt like the relationship between them was always so difficult. You never really saw, there was that many opportunities where you could see the love between these two woman, because they are fighting all the time.
EV: There is a great deal of tension between them, right from the top of the show.
TT: Yeah, they break up twice in the musical, they break up and they get back together, it's shaky from the beginning, wait, they break up three times, everybody breaks up at the end of Contact. We get back together at Angel's funeral. There are three breakups for Maureen and Joanne in the play, for the movie Chris Columbus said, "I don't want to do that", so at the end of the day, that is the relationship that is gonna make it.
EV: That is true.
TT: Mimi lives, but for how long, there might be another finish, but we don't know that, there isn't another way out.
EV: There is a real love there between Joanne and Maureen, I'm thinking of the relationship in such a different way speaking to you about, there is that primal connection between them.
TT: There is real love there, it's just a matter of when do we show it. Collins loses Angel, who knows how long Collins is going to last, who knows how long Roger is going to live. And again, Mimi, how long is she going to be alive? Joanne and Maureen are the ones that are going to survive, literally.
EV: Rent has such a powerful finale, but there is that bittersweet truth behind it, that fact that the future is unknown for so many of the characters. They don't necessarily have rosy futures.
TT: Yeah, they don't, so when it comes down to it, Maureen and Joanne are the ones that are going to make it, they have that big realization at the end of Goodbye Love, they are like, "wait, what are we doing?", you know, and they get back together and stay together, and while it might be tumultuous, they are going to be together for awhile.
EV: And maybe they even become stronger together after everything that relationship has dealt with, that tragic loss of friends, loved ones.
TT: They are such strong minded woman, and in the show, they are not you know, lovey dovey, but Chris Columbus wanted to really exploit the love, that relationship for the movie, there was more opportunity to express it in the film. During all of La Vie Boheme in the film we are just hanging out and enjoying each other, instead of breaking up as it happens in the show. We get to play. When they do break up in the movie, it's for a longer period, but it was only one big breakup.
EV: The subtlety of film allowed it, the power of a close up can express so much, and you've invested yourself as a viewer in their love affair in a different way regarding the film.
TT: Right. And they break up in such a dramatic way in the movie, at the engagement party, it's like "oh no, that's terrible", and it's Valentine's Day, and then they don't reconnect until Angel's funeral, which is Halloween. So they have all that time apart, to build it up, you know, for when they get back together. It made more dramatic sense on film.
EV: So, how did you approach all this when you joined the stage production, you know these characters so well, what were the first steps in expressing this love for each other as you began rehearsals?
TT: The structure is so different now, the thing is, how do we inject the love into the moments that we can?
EV: Finding those moments, that's the goal.
TT: Eden and I are so game to do it, you have to make the fighting very energetic, because they only been together for a couple of months-this is not an old relationship, so they are still very much into each other and Maureen has knocked Joanne off of her 'safe space', which she always prides herself on, her control. So she knocked her off of that, but that's what Joanne likes about her, that Maureen is so spontaneous and that's something that Joanne never allows herself to do. But at the same time, it can drive you nuts!
EV: She's fallen in love with an agent of chaos.
TT: Right, but Eden and I are both so game for finding that love, we are like, ok we are here, and we both happen to like boys, and that's okay, you know in real life. But on stage, when I'm on stage I'm in love with Eden! You know, sometimes I'm touching her, we're very affectionate, you know, finding those little moments.
EV: And that informs the audience, those physical moments…
TT: Totally, you know when other things are happening, I want to touch her.
EV: The intimacy is gonna be there, that relationship is so new, you want to touch each other for so many reasons.
TT: So many reasons, and uh, it's Eden, and Eden is hot.
EV: She really is, as if it wasn't enough of that gift of a voice, she is totally beautiful, she's a gem.
TT: And I had Idina too in the movie, I've been lucky with my Maureen's!
EV: You really have been, both are stunners! And now here you are, having that love affair every night with Maureen, you have this role that you've longed for, and all this emotion, every night, you live this woman's story, you bring it to life, I can't imagine the emotions you are feeling every moment.
TT: The first few days, it was so overwhelmingly emotional, that I had to pace myself emotionally as I did the show, because I can't, you get emotional you become drained, and I would have this pounding headache because, you know, you're weeping, I mean, for lots of reasons, for the show itself and the fact that I'm in it. Moments are like, 'What is happening? Am I really here?!'
EV: And every moment leads to that final performance when you close out Joanne's story on Broadway, where I cannot even begin to imagine the emotions regarding that fact!
TT: I know! And then they are showing that when they release it for the movies, and I'll have then been in both Rent films after that!
EV: You are going from screen to stage, and back again!
TT: I KNOW, I mean, what?!
EV: Well, I honestly believe this was meant to be, some people are maybe meant to get a show, or have a creative situation , but this was meant to be, it's the clearest case of someone being blessed with a role they truly deserved, and I'm so excited and happy for you, I mean I don't 'know' you, but talking to you about all this, I'm so proud of you. Your talent and your tenacity has seen you through this 'quest' and rewarded you. And you didn't just sit around and wait for Joanne to come, you built a successful and very varied career on your way to finding her.
TT: Aw, well thank you so much, I mean, hey, it's still so special.
EV: It gives every actor hope, it's inspiring.
TT: It does, you know what I did when the film was coming out, and I knew because I was a RENThead, I knew how near and dear these roles are and characters are to the fans of RENT. When they put up the website for the film I put up this long blog to the RENT fans explaining my history with the show, my love for it. Because you know with me they were like, 'Who the hell is Tracie Thoms?' Everybody else they got and they had their own opinions about Rosario Dawson getting the role of Mimi, which I think she did a fabulous job on, you know.
EV: I agree, I think you both brought something really wonderful and special to those roles, her Mimi was so beautiful and full of poetic sadness. Everyone in the film took such care of those characters.
TT: And that's what I was trying to do when I wrote the long blog, explaining to them how I got there, and I know I seemed like such a random choice to them, who the hell am I in your show, I get it. I wanted to explain my soul to the fans, what a long journey it was, just to calm them, to let them know I wasn't just random chick who didn't care about the story. And I was stopped by so many people on street, who said they read the blog and understood that they should never give up.
EV: In many ways, you were writing that blog to yourself, that young girl who stood in line at 4 am dreaming of being in the show, waiting for a chance to audition for the role.
TT: Absolutely, and when I first wrote it I just wanted to explain to them where I came from, and that I had such respect for it, I mean I saw Fredi Walker portray Joanne, the woman who created her, who I'm friends with now, which is just crazy. But I had to get her respect, I had to gain her respect, she had to see the movie first! But she said, "Ok, ok, you got it!" Having her approval, I mean, it meant so much.
EV: And you've both served this character so well, with so much love. It was just so meant to be.
TT: It was. I feel like it was, the thing that I knew, you know, and I'm a moderately spiritual person, when I was standing in that line to audition for RENT 11 years ago, and I was standing in line and standing in line and the people we rode up with had a show that night back in DC, and they said they weren't gonna make it back in time, they couldn't wait, so I told them to just go and I'd take the bus back, but they said we'll wait another five minutes, and in that time my voice was gone, and when I say gone, I mean gone. And I had never lost my voice like that before ever. It was like a sign telling me, enough, not now, its not for you yet, so I looked up and said ok, I get it and got back in the car and went back to DC, I also had a show, two shows to do that night myself.
EV: It was like some extreme act of cosmic intervention, because look how it eventually worked out!
TT: An extreme act!
EV: Now, 11 years later, here you are…
TT: If you had told me 11 years ago what was going happen I would of thought you were on crack! Your gonna do the movie, and be a member of the final cast and then be in a movie about that! The luck I've had, everyday I think of it all, the luck I have had, I worked with Quentin Tarantino for my third movie, Grindhouse. I mean that's insane too!
EV: Everything, the films, the great roles, I mean Julliard too.
TT: All of it.
EV: And it's still happening, it's just the beginning really.
TT: I am extremely blessed, and I can't even, it's still so overwhelming, the joy of doing the show, and I'm learning every day as I do it, I hadn't done a musical in a long time, so coming to it now, I'm getting back into shape , I'm inspired by it every day.
EV: I'm inspired by you too, I can talk to you all day, but you need to rest, we'll be there cheering you on as you approach the final performance. Thanks for speaking to us!
TT: Yeah! Thank you so much!
Tracie Thoms was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 1993 as well as getting a BFA from Howard University in Fine Arts. Tracie then went abroad to attend a program in the UK before being invited to join Julliard. After she graduated she began to work on stage, her Off-Broadway credits include 'A Raisin in the Sun' with Baltimore Center Stage, 'Up Against the Wind' with the New York Theater Workshop, 'The Oepipus Plays' in Shakespear Theater, 'Joe Turner's Come and Gone' with Missouri Rep, 'The Antigone Project' with the Women's Project and 'The Exonerated' with the Off-Broadway Center Stage. Her Broadway debut was in ReGina Taylor's 'Drowning Crow' alongside Alfre Woodard.
Her first television series work started with the UPN Network's 'As If ' which was based on a very successful British series. Quickly she became known for her role as Mahandra McGinty in the short-lived series 'Wonderfalls' which aired on FOX for a season. Currently, she is a member of the cast of the hit CBS series 'Cold Case' as former narcotics detective Kat Miller.
In addition to the movie version of Rent, she can be seen in such films as Comedy Central's 'Porn 'n Chicken', 'The Warrior Class', 'Brother to Brother', 'Grindhouse' and the film adaptation of the Lauren Weisberger best-seller, 'The Devil Wears Prada' alongside Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep.
RENT opened off-Broadway in January 1996 before moving to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre in April of the same year. The musical tells a story of a group of destitute artists and musicians struggling to survive and be heard in New York's Lower East Side. RENT was one of the first Broadway musicals to feature an ethnically diverse cast, including homosexual and bisexual characters.
Rent, written by Jonathan Larson and directed by Michael Greif, opened at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, on April 29, 1996 following a history making, sold out, extended limited engagement at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. The musical went on to win every major best musical award, including the Tony Award, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Rent is the seventh longest running show in Broadway history. Rent will play its final performance on Sunday, September 7th 2008. It is expected to be one of the biggest theatrical events of the year.
Rent plays at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41 Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm & 7pm. Tickets may be purchased by phoning TicketMaster at (212) 307-4100 or by visiting ticketmaster.com. A limited number of $20 tickets are available day of performance at the box office.
RENT film Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures