BWW Interview: Sammy Ferber is Mark in RENT 20th Anniversary Tour
This week is going to be great! Do you know why? It's because the 20th Anniversary tour of one of the best modern musicals is headed to the Saenger tonight! RENT, written by Jonathan Larson, follows a group of artists as they face life living in East Village as they deal with love and loss at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It's a story that teaches audience how to live their life in the present because tomorrow isn't guaranteed. What a lesson!
I remember RENT being the show to know my senior year of high school. It's the year the movie came out, which is how I was first introduced to the story. I can still picture my friends and I jamming to the cast recording in the car on the way to school, football games, dances, and even backstage at our own high school productions. It's been a story and a score that has stuck with me from then until now, and I can't wait to see this tour live. I hope I'll see you there!
Sammy Ferber, who plays Mark Cohen in this 20th Anniversary production, was kind enough to give me some insight not only into his personal journey with an acting career, but his journey with RENT and why this show is so special. Keep reading to find out what Sammy had to say!
What got you interested in musical theatre? It looks like you got started in this at a pretty young age.
Yeah, I was 7. I actually started... I had this group of friends in elementary school and we all started figuring out our interests together. We were in little league together, and all those sort of sports, and then two of my friends were in a play. They were in a musical, and I remember seeing them in OKLAHOMA!, and it was like this awful children's theatre or whatever; but, I saw it and was like oh that looks like fun. The next time that came around, I think it was literally a year from then because they only did one show a year, I did it with them and I found that I really enjoyed it. From there, my mom always says that... because people ask me a lot when I decided to be an actor professionally... she says that the way she remembers it me wanting to be an actor came right after me wanting to be like a fireman or a pie maker. It was a childish profession that I wanted that I never really grew out of.
Did you go to school to study theatre?
Yeah. So I went to like a normal high school, but when I was there, starting my sophomore year I was also training at this place called the Actors Training Center, which was run by these industry professionals. I was in their reparatory company. It was a teenage reparatory company. It was for high schoolers and a couple of middle schoolers, and it was run by this woman named Janet Louer who was a casting director in Chicago and had then become a professor at DePaul [University]. She was a hard ass, but she knew what she was talking about. Over the course of... starting from sophomore year I continued training through to the end of senior year, I did over a dozen shows with her. Sometimes four at a time, so it was really crazy. It was very much boot camp, it was very hard. She definitely wanted to break you to see if you could take it. It was almost like Whiplash. You know that Miles Teller movie? It was almost like that. I call her an evil genius because she took me from a kid that enjoyed acting, and she turned me into someone who could do it for a career. She broke me to the point where there were absolutely times where I wasn't sure and maybe I didn't have what it takes, but then I kept doing it, and I kept working harder, and I kept honing my stuff. When it was clear that I wasn't going to give up, suddenly everything sort of piled on top of it and I really started to improve. I was sort of getting a college level education when I was in high school. And then I went to NYU for theatre, and I found very quickly that I was somewhat ahead of my peers just because I was going in with training already. I think it's not a coincidence that that training I got in high school allowed me to get leading roles in plays my sophomore year at NYU that lead me to the tour.
What was the first professional show that you remember seeing, and how did it impact you?
I want to say it might have been WICKED. I grew up in Chicago, so I saw a lot of Broadway Chicago shows. I remember leaving WICKED and just being like so shocked by the spectacle of it all. The magic of theatre is something that always called to me. When I was a kid I loved magic. I was a big Harry Potter fan, you know? So I loved magic and spectacle, and this, to me, more than like going to see a magician was the closest thing I could have to magic in front of me. I would see every show I possibly could. I think I remember it being WICKED. And then when I was maybe in middle school, my dad took me to New York for a weekend for like a bonding trip or something, and I saw WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway, and I saw AVENUE Q off-Broadway, and I was just like oh yeah this is it for sure.
What was your first exposure to RENT?
I really grew up with RENT. The funny thing is that I am 21 now, I'm about to turn 22, and so I am the same age as RENT. I was born several months after it premiered. It's crazy because it's literally been around my entire life. My parents can't sing for their lives, they've never acted in their lives, but they're big fans of musical theatre. I just remember growing up and being in the car with my mom and she would be playing the soundtrack from an age where I didn't even know what was going on in the story. Of course, she wasn't giving me the juicy details of it, but it got to the point where I was listening to it so much that it would come in on the CD and I would recognize that it was RENT from the first couple of chords. I remember asking my mom what's happening now in the story, and she's sort of give me the basics or whatever. She'd always skip over context, but yeah. So the music was part of my childhood, and then as I started growing up and started delving into theatre myself, I was able to come to RENT as someone that was interested in the show itself, and then I would hear the music and go oh I already know all of this music. It always felt like a part of me even from that beginning. It always sort of had a special place in my heart. And then playing a character like Mark, someone who I resonated with a lot, I could picture sort of looking like me and acting like me and having the same fears as me. It was really great for me as a kid growing up.
And so you did RENT in school, too, before professionally, didn't you?
I did, yeah. That's how I got the gig, actually. I was in a production at NYU, and it just so happened to be when they started casting the tour. They sent someone from the casting team to our production to see if there was anyone worth bringing into callbacks, and they actually brought several of us. And, actually, since that NYU production four people from that production have been on the tour. It's a little crazy.
What's the difference between doing a show for a school production and doing the same show on the road professionally?
The biggest difference, and the difference that is the most readily apparent to me in the beginning was that I had never done a long run of a show before. It's something that you just can't learn in a classroom because it's impossible to teach. Prior to this I had only done maybe like ten shows max, you know ten performances of any given show max, so when we got to like the 50th show or the 100th show, I'm way past 300 at this point, that was very much something that I had to learn on the job... how to do that. It's just a different beast. But also, specifically with a show like RENT, what I find fascinating is that because the original production is so iconic, that long table for La Vie Boheme is so iconic, the Mark sweater is so iconic, it seems like every other production of RENT that someone makes is their response to the original whether consciously or subconsciously. With our NYU production, our director wasn't the biggest fan of the original. He knew that RENT was this iconic, revolutionary thing, but it wasn't for him. He didn't really like it. So, when he was directing it, his mission was to sort of do an interpretation or RENT that he enjoyed. I think that's very common. I also did a production of RENT back in high school, and even then my director was like I want to sort of tweak some things and do some things differently to make myself like it more. It's interesting to go from those responses of RENT to where everyone sort of like understands that people have sort of a base knowledge of what RENT is and sort of flipping it on its head... going from that to well let's get back to the original production. It's great because even in the rehearsal period for this show, they never told us to "do RENT." They were never like, "Ok so Sammy, you clearly know how Anthony Rapp did the character, so do that. Here's where you go, here's your blocking, here's your lines. Do it." They were very adamant that the original production is all about the individuals who were in the cast and who they were as people, so for them it wouldn't make sense to do anything else for any other cast. A lot of the rehearsal period was like, "Here's the script, here's the score, and you need to these things, but let's figure out what your Mark is because you aren't Anthony Rapp and so you're not going to do it like Anthony Rapp." What is a Sammy Ferber Mark? What does that look like? I'm very grateful for that because I was nervous going into an anniversary tour. I was worried that I wasn't gonna have creative license to do what I wanted with the character, and I was very wrong about that.
I think that's true not just with RENT, but with a lot of shows that are long-running and/or revivals of iconic shows. The original cast is the original cast is the original cast, and there will never be another original cast, so you kind of have to take it an make your own thing of it lest you risk copying.
Exactly, and that's something that I very much thought about a lot. My first production of RENT where I played Mark I was still young, I hadn't really learned that lesson yet. I was sort of trying to do what I know Mark should be, but by the time I was actually coming on the tour to play Mark I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do, and I didn't really care if some audience members were disappointed about that. I think in the long run I sort of justified it as... that audience members would go to the show and see me doing my shtick and go, "Well, he was sort of just doing an interpretation of Anthony Rapp, and Anthony Rapp's version of Anthony Rapp is better." So, I wanted to avoid that competition altogether and really went a different direction with Mark, and I sort of emphasize the stuff that always stood out to me about the character that are maybe different things than what stood out to Anthony Rapp.
What's the most challenging part about being on a tour?
It changes day to day. I like having a home base to turn to. I like having a place where I can call home. So living on the road that's just not possible. A lot of times it can sort of affect your psyche that way, and sort of make you feel like you're sort of wandering around in this fog where you don't really have anywhere to anchor yourself to. But those days and those weeks are sort of few and far between. A lot of times it's just, with the people you're surrounding yourself with, you wanna make sure that you find the people that you're traveling with that you enjoy. You try not to cause any fights or judge people and blah blah blah. It's hard. I've been on the road for two years now, and it's hard to work with, travel with, and socialize with the same group of people for two years. You know? So, it's just sort of an adjustment to figure out what tour life is like.
For those out there who may not have seen RENT, can you tell me about the story?
Sure, I'll give you the elevator pitch. RENT follows a year in the life of this group of bohemian artists living in Manhattan's East Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It follows them for a year as they deal with things like love and death and relationships and questions about how to live a life that is meaningful even if it isn't the longest. Even if you could die tomorrow, how do you still have a life that has purpose? It deals with a lot of that heavy stuff, those really important questions, and they're questions that are based in reality. When Jonathan Larson was writing it, he was living in East Village, he was surrounded by all of his friends that were dying of AIDS. Every bit of this script is based in the reality that he was seeing outside his window every day.
With a show like this, that is so heavy and it's almost like a marathon of a show, how do you make sure you're prepared for this eight shows a week?
Yeah, it's definitely an opera. It's a rock opera, so it doesn't really stop. Everyone's body is different, and I think when you're on a long run like this you sort of very quickly find out what your body can and can't do. There are a lot of people on this tour that their bodies allow them to go out drinking after every show and staying up until 4am and then they just wake up and do the show and it's totally fine. I'm not like that. A) that's not really what I enjoy, but B) my body just really can't handle that. Sleep is very important to me. Water is very important to me. I'm chugging a gallon of water a day. I try to sleep at least ten hours per day. For me, the most important thing is the show and the most important thing to me is the next show. I won't do anything today or during tonight's show to negatively affect my ability to do tomorrow's show. That sort of mentality really keeps me in check, and stops me from doing anything stupid.
What are some of your favorite moments in the show?
Oh God, it really changes, because there are so many nuggets of amazingness in this show. It really depends on what sort of day I'm having and what I need. If I'm having a day where I'm upset and angry, then the opening number "Rent," it's the title number, feels great because I can sort of get out that frustration and say f*** you to the man, and that feels great. There are days where I just want to goof around and have fun, and then I have "Today for You" and "Tango Maureen" and those kind of numbers. Then there are days where I just really need a good cry, and I have basically the entirety of Act II. It's sort of great in that respect because I can sort of deal with whatever I need to deal with in my everyday life and just deal with it onstage. It makes it hard to choose because everything is so important to me on any given day.
If there was someone in your cast who you could switch with for the night, who would you want to play?
Oh God. That's actually a really interesting question. I think, you know, maybe Benny? I don't want to step on any racial toes, but Benny's a really fun character. I think I could have fun with sort of walking that line between being an asshole, but genuinely wanting to support my friends and all that kind of stuff. That'd be really interesting. And then why not throw on those Angel heels, you know? Every character has their amazing moments, and so if I could just change everything about my body and my face and all that kind of stuff and my voice then I would love to play every character.
To wrap us up and to get people pumped up for the show, what are the top three reasons people should come see RENT?
Well, A) it's a good time. You're gonna feel everything that you need to feel. You're gonna feel excited, you're gonna feel pumped, you're gonna cry, you're gonna cheer. You're gonna have an emotional roller coaster, which is just great. And also the message is so important... the message of measuring your life in love and living each day as if tomorrow isn't guaranteed. And really, especially now with our political environment that we have, I think it's really important for all of us to remember that everyone on every side of every debate is human their opinions are valid. We don't have to agree to respect each other as human beings. That's sort of what "La Vie Boheme" is about is that we can say, "Screw you, Benny, for not letting us be who we are." But, at the end of the day we aren't saying that he's wrong. What we're saying is that all of this, all of what we're experiencing is great and fantastic and valid. If you can't just let us be ourselves that's your problem, that's not our problem at all. We talked about that a lot in rehearsals. Our director would say, "The person next to you may be saying something during 'La Vie Boheme' that you don't necessarily care about, but they care about it and that's enough to celebrate," or, "You may not like anarchy, but they might like anarchy and that's enough to celebrate." The idea of not being uniform or not having one way of thinking is fine, and the divisive sort of conversations that we have now... it's a nice refreshing reminder for all of us that there's more than just the black and white that we see so often nowadays.
RENT is playing at the Saenger Theatre tonight through Sunday, April 22. Tickets are available at www.saengernola.com. Don't forget that in celebration of RENT's 20th anniversary, there are $25 cash only tickets for the first two rows of orchestra that will be available at the box office the day of each show beginning two hours before each performance. See you there