When “Rent” opened in 1996, it scored major headlines, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the show was a raw, rock musical that stood out in a theater season featuring “The King & I,” “Victor/Victoria” and “Inherit The Wind.” Its characters, a group of struggling young artists in New York’s East Village, were a motley crew living amidst the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Beyond that, on the night before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere, its creator and composer, Jonathan Larson, suddenly died of an undiagnosed aortic condition. He would never see the enormous impact his landmark vision would achieve.
With a message of joy and hope, Larson’s contemporary re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Boheme” went on to win both Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. Two decades later, the “Rent 20th Anniversary Tour” comes to Boston’s Boch Center Shubert Theatre from April 11 to April 23.
Andover native Katie LaMark is playing Maureen Johnson, a flirtatious performance artist who has a history with the character of Mark, a struggling Jewish-American documentary filmmaker who serves as the show’s narrator. Maureen is currently the girlfriend of Joanne, a public interest lawyer. (The role of Maureen was originated by Idina Menzel.)
Now living in Harlem, LaMark received her BFA at Syracuse University and has appeared in the Off-Broadway and National Touring productions of “50 Shades! The Musical Parody” as well as the Flatrock Playhouse production of “Chasing Rainbows.”
We spoke by phone when “Rent” was playing in Kentucky. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
Q. When “Rent” opened in 1996, the world was a very different place. Why does the show continue to connect with audiences the way it does?
A. I think one of the main reasons is that everyone identifies with someone in it. It’s very rare in musical theater that you have eight people who carry the show equally . . . (Plus) I think it’s amazing — and it took me a little while to realize this — when people talk about (the characters) Collins and Angel, for example. Angel chooses to dress as a woman and identify as female. And Collins is a black man who works in technology. They’re in an interracial gay relationship and it’s like, “Oh, that’s what we know about them.” But never do any characters talk about it . . . It’s never important . . . All these people come from such different walks of life. But it doesn’t matter to the story, because the story is about connections.
Q. The influence of AIDS in 1996 almost categorizes “Rent” as a period piece. Yet it still fits in a contemporary sense.
A. Absolutely. Totally. Because of the lessons that it teaches. What do you do when you suddenly have this crisis, which then was the AIDS epidemic. In 2017, unfortunately, we have terrorist attacks or mass shootings . . . How do you manage? How do you cope? What becomes important? What are the things you struggle with? . . . The feelings are all the same . . . The unfortunate reality is that, here in 2017, we know what it’s like to suddenly lose a lot of people.
Q. You’re following in the footsteps of Idina Menzel. No pressure, right?
A. My God, so much pressure (laughing). I used to feel it very strongly, especially when I first booked the part. I thought, “Man, people are gonna say that I’m not as good, how could I ever be blah, blah, blah.” But then I realized, I’m not that. They cast me because they’re excited about who I am and what I can do. So as soon as I sort of gave myself permission to explore it . . . with my own voice . . . then the pressures wore off, because I think what I do is really different.
Q. Is there a particular moment in the show that touches you personally?
A. The moment I felt most connected to the piece came when we were in rehearsal. And it’s a part of the show that I’m not even in! But when Collin and Angel sing the first “I’ll Cover You” – which is just so joyful – it’s so happy when the two of them are just skipping down the street, falling in love. It totally brought me to tears . . . It’s the moment you realize this is all these characters want, just to be loved and to love unconditionally. The beacon for the whole show is that song. And that’s why we sing it again in the second act, which unfortunately, is after Angel passes away. It’s sad because not only are we losing Angel, but we’re losing the most healthy, pure relationship in the whole show. The rest of the show is these people struggling to try and achieve what they found easily. To me, that song speaks to my heart.
Q. I understand you’re part of a very musical family.
A. My whole family are artists . . . My father is a Boston-area musician, Todd LaMark . . . (My parents met because) my Mom is a singer. The singer in my Dad’s band couldn’t do a gig one night and she was the sub on the gig. So I grew up in recording studios and around my parents playing the piano and singing with us all day.
Q. Do you have special memories of attending theater locally?
A. Every year my family went to see “A Christmas Carol” at North Shore Music Theater. You know it’s great because my Dad played in a lot of the orchestra pits in town. So I remember seeing “Grease” when I was really little. And when I was in high school we saw “Chorus Line,” and my Dad was in the pit for that. It’s really just been like that from the beginning.
Q. Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to perform professionally?
A. Honestly, I don’t think there was ever a time when I wasn’t interested . . . I grew up watching musical movies. And ever since I was little, I was in plays and musicals. My sister and I are only a year a part and the two of us did it together . . . It didn’t occur to me that people did other stuff . . . Everybody does this, right? (Laughs)
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Rent,” April 11 - 23, Boch Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston. Info:bochcenter.org, or 866-348-9738.