BWW Interview: Kelsee Sweigard of RENT at Hennepin Theatre Trust
As a person who's seen RENT more times than I can even count, including every national tour (some multiple times), in standing room in NYC, and from the front row after waiting in a line for hours outside way back in the late 90s, it's fair to say I'm a RENT head. It's always pleasure, and even though it's a bit dated in some ways, for fans of the show, there is comfort and joy in seeing a revival that's not "reimagined" and true to the original. But most of the players in the RENT 20th Anniversary tour may have not been born when this show was first staged.
While her age is unknown, the current production's Maureen, Kelsee Sweigard has a deep appreciation for this show and its history. This 6 Questions & a Plug (or in this case, what's next in the tour), explores more about this with Sweigard as she wraps up her first run in Minneapolis this weekend.
This is billed as a 20th anniversary tour of RENT. It really was a game changer in its day -- so different than most other musicals we'd seen until that time. For me personally it grabbed me by the heart, as I know it did countless others. Is this almost seen as a period piece now with a new generation tackling this story of the mid 90s? How does this production embrace the themes of love, loss and community as much as the original did for my generation?
I definitely agree that RENT qualifies as a period piece. There are so many parts of the show with costumes and references that are quintessential 1990s. It's powerful themes and messages conveyed by the characters written by Jonathan Larson are those of inevitable life experience - no matter where you grew up or live now. You don't have to live in the hustle and bustle of New York City to experience falling in love, losing that love or the lives of loved ones, or to feel like you don't fit in. The community showcased in RENT exists everywhere - human beings searching for success, poignancy, love, and acceptance for exactly who they are. The cast and myself get to give a fresh take with fresh energy on a story that has persevered and somehow remains (arguably) more relevant in today's social and political climate. This may be the 4th year of the 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT, but this current cast is lucky enough to share the prescience of Larson's music and lyrics almost 3 decades after he began to write them!
Nowadays, AIDS is not seen as a full death sentence they way it was when RENT premiered with the current treatments available. Do the medical advances and changes since the time of the play's writing make it any less relevant to you as a cast now? Does this production still support the HIV/AIDS causes?
The medical advances made since the show's premiere are part of what locks RENT in as a period piece. We behave slightly differently today when hearing of diagnoses or when faced with them - I've had friends of my own learn they were HIV Positive, get good treatment and medicine as fast as possible, and recover enough to reach an undetectable viral load. Luckily, for so many today it's not a total crisis as it was during the panic and pandemonium of the epidemic. However, I don't think it makes the writing less relevant, because the story captures the lives of multiple people living with AIDS in the 1990s, and how they all deal with it as individuals. RENT captures a snapshot of a year in the life of these people, exactly as it would have been and was for so many in the 80s, 90s living in fear of the unknown.
In terms of supporting HIV/AIDS causes, we try our best to partner with local AIDS foundations in each city the tour goes to. In some cities, the cast organizes charity cabarets and donates the proceeds to these local organizations. We also work with local chapters of The Marfan Foundation. As you may or may not know, Jonathan Larson passed away from undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome, so this is another cause the show has always been tied to and passionate about supporting.
Are you doing anything new with Maureen's infamous Elsie the Cow/Moo monologue or do you stay faithful to the OG performance of Idina Menzel?
A bit of both! To be completely honest, I haven't watched Idina's performance of "Over The Moon" in a very long time. Once I knew I was up for the role of Maureen, I was careful with what source material I explored, because I didn't want to give an exact copy of any one person's performance. It's admittedly very tricky when working on something so well-known - and frankly, iconic - because my wish is to give it a new original life with my own take, as well as pay homage to the many incredible women who have played the role before me.
The RENT directing and choreography team spent a lot of time with me one-on-one in rehearsals allow me to explore as many of the endless possibilities with the piece as I could! It was a wonderful and safe place to do the work on one of the more "out there" solo pieces that a Broadway musical has ever seen. There are some keystone moments throughout the piece that have always remained in the Broadway run that began in 1996 and thus, this 20th Anniversary Tour, and I was able to build my own piece around those. The piece lives very differently on each person who plays the role, which might be the most exciting thing about it!
Will die-hard RENT fans find this new production to be new or different in any other ways?
The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT is a "revival" of sorts of the original Broadway production that opened in 1996. The creative team who worked with Michael Greif's incredible directing vision are the same ones who set this tour - including original Resident Asst. Director Evan Ensign, our tour's director. We also are lucky enough to work with original Music Arranger and Music Supervisor Tim Weil, original Choreographer Marlies Yearby, and original Costume Designer Angela Wendt. All this to say, die-hard RENT and musical theatre fans will absolutely recognize the ode to the show's original mount, and as performers in the show, we consider ourselves extremely lucky to recreate something that was so revolutionary when it was first born. Of course, there will always be slight differences with new casts and whatnot, but ultimately we, the actors in the show, keep it fresh, truthful, and as new as can be within the known, beloved show.
You just wrapped another tour (of KINKY BOOTS) recently -- what's it like moving from one national tour to another so far? What was that (show) experience like for you?
So far, the transition from one to the other has been really great, because I'm so currently acclimated to life on the road. I've loved jumping right in to a new show with a new cast and staying busy! KINKY BOOTS is one of my favorite shows ever, and I've found a lot of similar themes exist between it and RENT in terms of love and acceptance. There are characters in both pieces that struggle to be seen for exactly who they are, and are in constant pursuit of people and places that will love them as such. I was a part of the final National Tour Company of KINKY BOOTS - we closed on June 19, 2019 - and joining that National Tour in the first place was a major dream-come-true. I actually will be playing a lot of the same venues with RENT, which is exciting!
What are your bucket-list roles and dreams for your continuing career in NYC?
I have been incredibly fortunate to tour North America with two National Tours of Broadway musicals (RENT and KINKY BOOTS), and while I absolutely love traveling and life on the road, my biggest wish is to one day book a show ON Broadway! I tend miss NYC a lot when I'm away. My biggest dream roles that I'd love to perform on any stage, however, are Elphaba in WICKED, Jenna in WAITRESS, Carole King in BEAUTIFUL, and Janis Joplin in A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin.
What's next for you after RENT, or how long will you be on this tour and where are you headed?
My time with RENT has just begun - this current cast started rehearsals in NYC on July 8, and we had our opening night in Houston, Texas, on August 6! I know I'll be with the tour through the end of May 2020 all over North America, and Tokyo, Japan, for 3 weeks in March! I can't wait to continue exploring this dream show and dream role.
Kelsee Sweigard bio:
(Maureen Johnson) Over the moon for this dream come true! National Tour: Kinky Boots (Pat). Regional: Man of La Mancha (Aldonza); Shrek (Dragon); How to Succeed, Gypsy (Flat Rock Playhouse). Workshops: Agent 355 (Anna Strong); Ragtime (Ellis Island). BFA Shenandoah Conservatory. Gratitude to Wojcik|Seay, Rent creatives, and Mom! KelseeSweigard.com, @KelseeSweigard
RENT runs at Minneapolis' Orpheum through Aug. 18. www.hennepintheatretrust.com
Headshot of Kelsee Sweigard: Courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust and the artist
Production photo: Cast of 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT, by Carol Rosegg, 2018