It’s easy to see why RENT has become a worldwide phenomenon, with fans being known as ‘RENTheads’, and “Seasons of Love” being sung regularly by choirs in voice competitions. ‘No day but today’ has become the motto for many, including myself. Most recently, the show has undertaken a 20th Anniversary UK tour, with names such as Kerry Ellis and Nikki Davis-Jones drawing in new audiences, however, the casting has also caused quite a stir amongst fans of the musical, and not in a good way.
Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, which is based upon the opera La Bohème, is a musical about acceptance, living for today and equality. The show has drawn fans from all backgrounds, and the casting for the UK tour has caused more than a little discomfort amongst fans. Mimi, an exotic dancer of Hispanic background was played by Rosario Dawson in the 2005 movie. Similarly, Tracie Thoms played the lawyer Joanne, who was also written in the musical as being a woman of color. However, in the UK tour, Kerry Ellis takes on the role of Mimi, with Jemma Alexander as Joanne. What you may have noticed, is a difference of race between the characters and the actresses playing them.
Many fans are unhappy with this casting, and feel as though a musical about equality in all forms should be properly represented as such. Personally, I have always thought that Kerry would make an absolutely fantastic Maureen, and was quite surprised to hear that she’d been cast as Mimi instead. Some, however, feel that both women are talented enough to take on the roles, and that their race does not matter, so long as they perform well.
When I went to see a production of RENT in Manchester, many of the characters were portrayed as you’d expect, with the exception of Joanne and Collins, who were played by white actors. For me, this took nothing away from the characters, as they performed exceptionally well. The fact that they were able to get the emotional core of the characters across to me was enough at that moment in time. However, I can definitely understand the emotions around the casting in a tour that will be seen by audiences across the country. Surely, the UK contains a wide enough range of talent to choose from so that the full range of diversity called for in the characters can be represented in the show. For example, Alexia Khadime, currently Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon would make a brilliant Joanne.
It’s completely unfair that the musical has been whitewashed, and that the opportunities for actors of color have been taken away. When actors of color are cast in a role originally written as a white person, there is a massive outcry – for example, the controversy that surrounded the casting of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in CBS’ Elementary – so why doesn’t the same happen when it is the other way around? RENT talks about bending rules and breaking boundaries, but here it seems to have conformed to the same whitewashing norms to which many Hollywood movies have taken.
RENT has always showcased talent from all backgrounds, from the original Broadway cast, to the film, to the RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway DVD. For a concert tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of a musical which has had the nerve to stand out and push boundaries, it seems understandable that fans are disappointed that this same tradition of diversity is not represented by its cast.
What do you think of this casting? Let me know in the comments!