This season, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is bringing the fan-favorite musical Rent to the stage. The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical written by Jonathan Larsen initially premiered in 1996. Rent “follows a year in the lives of young artists seeking connections, navigating political instability, mourning losses, and facing the relentless toll of the AIDS virus.” The show will debut at the Virginia Theatre for one weekend only.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rent’s music director Justin Brauer, who told me about the challenges of preparing for the vocally-demanding and well-known and beloved musical.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: Tell me about yourself. What ties you to Champaign-Urbana?
Justin Brauer: I’m a musician and theatre educator. I first came to Champaign-Urbana in 2010 for my undergrad in choral music education, then stuck around for a master’s degree in musicology. By the time I had finished grad school, my now-wife was working full-time here and we had started to put down roots and build a community. I’ve been music directing in town since about 2012, and have played with a few bands and musicians in the area. During the day I work in advancement at the University of Illinois.
SP: What is your role in this production of Rent? How did you get involved?
Brauer: I’m the music director for the production, and I’ve been working with Illinois Theatre since 2016. Originally, I was hired to develop and teach (with Rent co-director J.W. Morrissette) a gen-ed about Broadway musicals in US culture, as well as the junior-level musical theatre acting studio. This is now my sixth production with the department, and my third working with Rent co-director and Illinois Theatre producer Lisa Gaye Dixon. We first worked together on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2018, in which she played a hilarious Pseudolus.
SP: What is the rehearsal process like for a production like this?
Brauer: Including the final week of tech and performances, we have about nine weeks to put together the show, but as a directing team we’ve been talking about the show since last November. Then in the spring we had a series of meetings with the designers, plus a week of departmental auditions. The summer is a good down-time, but as soon as we came back and started rehearsals it’s been pretty non-stop. We rehearse five days a week, and including cast, directors, designers, production staff, band, faculty advisors, shop staff… it gets close to a hundred folks involved in some capacity.
The rehearsal process begins with really focused music rehearsals. Working on a musical poses different challenges to a straight play in that the technical elements of the text are not just limited to language, you’re also adding rhythm and pitch. So, we spend a lot of time up front putting together those building blocks so that the cast has the tools to start blocking and choreography. I always tell my casts that I’m more interested in telling the story than hitting the exact right notes, which I think helps take the pressure off a little bit and also lets the actors focus on character earlier on. Especially working with soloists or small groups, my music rehearsals are probably two-thirds musical technicality and one third exploring motivation. I love when an actor can start moving away from the notes on the page and start making musical choices based on character.
Once the music is taught, we’re able to start layering in choreography and blocking, and everything builds really collaboratively from there. Lisa, J.W., myself, and Alexandra Barbier, our choreographer, have a really great rhythm and interplay, and we’re all focused on telling the same story. Sometimes one of us will start exploring a concept and another will be able to point out how another element of the story supports that idea, whether movement or music or text.
SP: Have there been any unique challenges or anything surprising about preparing for this production?
Brauer: The biggest challenge of course is just the scope of the show. It’s a ton of music, and very vocally demanding. We’re lucky to have specialized voice faculty in the theatre department, as well as a great partnership with Lyric Theatre @ Illinois. Sarah Wigley came to one of our first rehearsals to work with the whole cast on healthy vocal production, which helped give the whole team a common language to use throughout the process.
One thing I didn’t expect was the different generational approaches the whole team would bring to the show. I’m a millennial, and growing up in the 90s, this show was such a prevalent part of musical theatre (and national) culture. It didn’t occur to me until we started rehearsals that a lot of the cast didn’t grow up with Rent, and so there were some cultural elements that took more time to work through than we had anticipated. It’s weird to think of something that feels so ingrained in our lives as a period piece, but the show is nearly 30 years old now.
SP: I imagine that most people in the audience will be familiar with the musical already, but for those who aren’t, (or maybe also for those who are…) what should they expect or what sets this musical apart from others, in your opinion?
Brauer: Rent is, at its core, a human story. For me it’s about the value and cost of community. It’s been really important to us throughout the process to make sure that we’re welcoming the audience into the story and the community. We’re publishing the final couple of stanzas of “La Vie Boheme,” the big act one closer, in the program and inviting the audience to stand and sing and dance with us. So that’s the biggest moment of audience inclusion, but all of the staging and choreography has been very conscious of how we welcome the audience in. So often I think productions of Rent are really important and meaningful for the team involved, but don’t include the audience in that experience as much. We’re trying to keep that in mind.
SP: What are you most looking forward to with staging this musical?
Brauer: There are a couple of really stand-out moments for me. The department brought back a young alum, AJ Paramo, to play Angel, and their act one number “Today 4 U” is really energetic and exciting. Angel really is the heart of the show and the friend group, and there’s an incredibly moving moment in the second act that is very powerful. I’m also really glad that the band is part of the action. This is a group of musicians that I’ve played with for many years, and we have a lot of fun playing together. Also, pretty early on Lisa asked if the band had a name. I came up with a few options, and we landed on the Landlords of Anarchy. Good 90s punk. I also proposed New York Housing Authority and Mixed-Use Development. I still like that last one, maybe I’ll use it sometime.
SP: Besides Rent, what else from this season at KCPA are you excited about?
Brauer: There’s always so much good stuff at KCPA. I think Ana Gasteyer’s show will be a lot of fun, and I was happy to see Monet X Change and Alaska 5000’s show as part of PYGMALION a few weeks ago. John Cameron Mitchell is another I’m looking forward to. Outside of KCPA, I’m really excited about Anthem opening in Downtown Champaign next month. We’ve been missing a venue like that for many years, so it’s a much-needed addition to the community.
SP: Do you have an all-time favorite production you’ve worked on?
Brauer: It’s hard to pick just one. There are elements of certain productions that stand out. I worked on Floyd Collins at the Station Theatre, which was a combination of an incredible group of people and a show that really worked well in that space. Assassins with Illinois Theatre had one of the most memorable moments of sound design I’ve ever seen. The gunshot at the climax of show went whizzing around the room. I also fired the final shot of the show from the bandstand, so I had a gun on my hip the whole show, which was a first for me. Another that I’m really proud of was The Drowsy Chaperone with Illini Student Musicals. I was on the founding board of that group as a student, and that was our first show. I’m really glad they’re still producing on campus after all these years. It’s good to see that lasting impact.
SP: If you could work on any musical, what would it be?
Brauer: There’s a short list of big shows that I want to do someday. The Secret Garden, Ragtime, Big Fish. The Secret Garden was actually my first musical as a kid, and it really got me into theater. Those are also all shows that I would really have consider auditioning for instead of directing. It’s been over a decade since I last was on stage, but I would think about it for those.
SP: What’s next for you?
Brauer: Rest, first and foremost. I went to The Lit over the weekend and bought a bunch of books in preparation for fall evenings once the show is over. Musically, I’ll have some gigs coming up with my band Junkyard Radio. A few years ago, I put out an EP called Music for Podcasts that was an exercise to record short ideas very quickly and then immediately publish them and not get lost in the never-ending editing process. The titles were all phrases from a Cole Porter biography. That was really rewarding for me and I’d like to do a longer one once I have some more time to spare.