Friday, June 5, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Measuring Life



How do we measure a year in our life? In minutes-all five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred of them? In moments, relationships, accomplishments...?

The cast of the original RENT, reunited (bar one) after nine years for the film version of the musical, measures it in love-or "lo-ooove": Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played the original Angel in the still-running Broadway production, offers a hint of the theme melody when we talk on the phone. "[Love] is a very fine way of measuring time," he affirms. 

Red Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Inspired by Puccini's classic opera La BohËme, Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, revolutionizing rock opera RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends-including Roger and Angel-living in Alphabet City (a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) of the mid-eighties and struggling to express themselves through their art, while enduring drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS pandemic. 

Roger (Adam Pascal, reprising his role on-screen) is an aspiring songwriter who gets involved with heroin. He and his girlfriend contract HIV through using dirty needles. When his girlfriend commits suicide, Roger withdraws from the world. It's through the character Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer, and his friend, Collins [Jesse L. Martin (A&U, January 2000)], a now-homeless professor of philosophy, that Roger comes out of his shell. In another plot thread, Collins is rescued by Angel after he is mugged; the two discover they are each other's soul mates.

"RENT [the movie] humanizes its characters. It makes them more tactile, more real," Heredia comments. "It's like you know the people that are on the screen. You get to feel what the Village felt like. What it was like to live in Alphabet City." Angel has taught Heredia a lot about one of the themes of the movie-no day but today, for one-and the importance of living in the moment.

But is the movie version powerful enough to connect with today's audience?
"I think even more," Heredia responds, explaining that the medium allows the audience to know the characters at a much deeper level and get more emotionally attached to them. "AIDS is still a prominent disease [and] people need to realize this [AIDS] awareness," Heredia concludes. He believes that RENT has the power to help us do just that.

Music, especially, has the power to send a message like this in both a highly memorable and emotionally affecting way. Heredia's favorite from RENT is "Without You" (sung by Angel and Collins). "It's one of the songs that hits you right in the stomach," he explains when talking about the significance of the song. "Yes, I know that the world keeps spinning, but it doesn't really matter if I'm dying without you."

Adam Pascal's favorite song is "I'll Cover You" (sung by Roger and Mimi at Angel's funeral). "I'm somebody who's very much moved by music and every time I hear this song it moves me to tears," the actor confesses. "It's connecting on an emotional level that most songs in life don't." 

Pascal, coming to the character that he originated "ten years older and hopefully wiser," believes that today's audience-especially its younger members-"need to understand what the characters are going through because, back then, [AIDS] was an immediate death sentence," Pascal explains. "It wasn't that long ago that this was the case."

He hopes that the movie will bring AIDS back into the public consciousness and "show people that [AIDS] kills the white kids just like it kills the Africans. It's the same disease-it doesn't discriminate. In Africa, thousands and thousands of people are dying from AIDS, but it's in somebody else's backyard. We're not gonna deal with it unless it's directly affecting us," Pascal comments. And, by "us," he doesn't mean just Americans. "I'm amazed at how everyone looks at [the U.S. and asks,] 'How come you haven't cured it?'" Pascal is intrigued. "There are lots of other countries in this world that have a lot of responsibility and I don't see them stepping up to the plate either. Where is the U.K.? Where's Germany?"

AIDS is at the bottom of the list for many developed nations because the majority of the people who are dying from AIDS are African and poor and, as Pascal mentions, "the only time you hear about it or see it, is when a news crew goes and shoots some pictures of it." Other than that, AIDS is not in the public consciousness, especially with all that's going on-in Iraq and the rest of the world-that distracts people's attention. 

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, we have to do something, he believes. "It's interesting how people selectively look through the Bible and decide what's important and what things they choose to ignore," Pascal says. "And those things will change, given any particular situation." The pandemic is a threat to our humanity: "If tomorrow aliens landed on this planet, that would completely change the perspective of everybody and all of our various religions and all of our various races and cultures would cease to have the meaning that they have now because we would realize that what we all are is human." He hopes that RENT will spark enough interest in the disease, enough for people to see what AIDS is doing to people in Africa.

"The reason why we shouldn't ignore [AIDS] is the same reason why we couldn't ignore Nazi Germany," Pascal reiterates. "We have a moral obligation to stop millions of people from dying. We can't stand by and allow this to happen in this world that we share, that we all live on."   


Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer
Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY of AIDS