Interviews by Jack Silbert
I’d never actually seen the musical Rent, though I think I’ve heard that one song at least 525,600 times. So when I learned that a production was happening just up the street from me at Hoboken High School (February 8, 9, and 10), I decided to take a behind-the-scenes look.
Not surprisingly, director Danielle Miller—the school’s theater teacher and a former touring cast member of Tony & Tina’s Wedding—took an early interest in the stage. “I was a Brownie and we went to see Annie,” Miller tells Media Darlings. “My mom said the whole time, instead of watching the show, I kept saying, “I can do that.’ I guess I just fell in love with it. She couldn’t shut me up! I kept saying, ‘Can I go up there?’”
The same early passion was true for the show’s musical director, Kristen Dziuba, herself a well-regarded singer and music teacher. “My parents are both musicians, and my family was very musical,” Dziuba says. “I’ve been gigging since I was 11.”
After months of exhausting rehearsals, the songs, dialogue, stage directions, and dance moves are second nature for the cast, crew, and musicians. (The tech rehearsal I watched was top-notch.) But Miller and Dziuba both point out the importance of other traits that were stressed along the way: Dedication. Determination. Compassion. Respect. Being on time! “We don’t care about them just as performers,” Dziuba says. “We want them to grow into good people. To put more good humans into the world.”
From my discussions with a few of the cast members, it seems like Miller and Dziuba are doing a superb job. These are real good kids! (I had already known that about a couple of them: Arturo on the crew, who is my buddy from Sandy volunteering. And Marina, who does a show-stopper as Maureen, who I’d seen sing before at D’s Soul Full Café. Hey, Hoboken’s a pretty small town.) Here are some excerpts from my conversations.
Media Darlings: It’s been a while since I’ve been on the high-school stage, but I remember it taking up countless hours.
Jaemison Yoon-Hendricks: Junior year is a pretty tough time, mixed between classwork and researching colleges. To top it all off, we’re working on this daily. Right now, “tech week” [the week prior to opening, when all technical elements are sorted out] fills in the gap and leaves no time for classwork or college work.
MD: But, opening night, it’ll all be worth it, right?
JYH: Definitely. That one moment at the very closing of the show, it totally is worth months of practice.
MD: I’m guessing this is not your first production.
JYH: I did some workshops at this youth theater company, Tada!, in New York City. Then I played roles at the Hoboken Children’s Theater. I also did some plays at my old elementary school. I moved on to the Hoboken High School stage: Fender in Hairspray, the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, and Chuck Cranston in Footloose.
MD: Are you looking to pursue theater beyond high school?
JYH: I’m actually more interested in film, media arts, and visual arts. I want to go to Hollywood and be a director, really work with the actors. The principles of being a director have to include being a “theater kid,” and you also have to know the technology. You have to have good leadership skills, and you obviously know how to speak your mind and get your point across really quickly. I want to go to a school like USC, get a job on small films, maybe even make my own. Slowly build myself higher and higher on that showbiz hierarchy, and hopefully win an Oscar someday.
Media Darlings: Tell us a little bit about the character.
Ariel Cruz: She’s an exotic dancer at the Cat Scratch Club who meets Roger in his apartment after his girlfriend just died. So it’s kind of a heavy moment, but she adds the playfulness. She kind of brings Roger back to life. She brings a little spunk to the show.
MD: You’d seen the show before. Did you relate to Mimi?
AC: I’ve always loved the character. The role always spoke to me. She’s very free-spirited. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.
MD: This is your senior year. What’s next for Ariel Cruz?
AC: After this show, I’m preparing for college auditions. I want to go to school to get a musical theater BFA. It’s exciting but it’s a lot of work. All my friends are like, “Oh, I have acceptance letters, I finished all my applications,” and I’m, like, I’m only through round one, then you have auditions, interviews, callbacks….
MD: You mentioned that auditions for Rent took place before Superstorm Sandy. How did the storm affect the production?
AC: We lost a few weeks to Sandy because the school was closed. There was no way to get in here; this was actually a shelter for Hoboken.
MD: Sandy was so rough on our community. Was it comforting to have the show to come back to?
AC: It was good to see everyone again; it was good to know everyone was safe. It had been hard to communicate—we were all trying to check on each other. It was nice to get into a routine. A lot of cast members, some didn’t have power, some had to stay at a relative’s, so it’s kind of that homeless feeling that’s in the show, people who are homeless and suffering. It kind of hits home harder now when you’re on stage.
Media Darlings: Are you more interested in musical theater or dramatic theater?
Christopher Velez: Musical theater… even though I’ve heard that I can’t sing!
MD: Who told you that?!?
CV: I did a competition, I got a callback, the guy sat me down, and said: I’m going to tell you the positives and negatives of your audition. Your acting was really great, I liked it, I believed it, you were funny, blah blah blah. And he goes, “But you can’t sing. So don’t sing, just act, because that’s your strong suit.” In the back of my head, I was, like, “Oh, maybe I should just stick to theater.” But when I came back here senior year I was, like, “No! I’m going to work on my singing.”
MD: Has the show Rent made you more eager to get out into the world… or less?
CV: It’s a good question, because these characters are struggling with paying their rent. A lot of kids are just, oh, when I leave high school I’m going to get an apartment and live on my own because I can’t stand my parents. Here in the show, my [character’s] mom is always calling me: Are you OK? I sent you food. Checking up on me. I can’t pay the rent, I don’t have a job. It’s a scary thought, but at the same time I think it’s exciting. I want to get out in the world.
MD: Which performers have you looked up to?
CV: Pop stars nowadays, they don’t sing right, so I can’t really look up to them. But if there’s one I want to pick, it’s Adam Levine because he’s freaking awesome, I don’t know how he does what he does. Also Marlon Brando. And Frank Sinatra. I don’t want to sound corny saying this because “He came from Hoboken,” everyone knows that. But, Sinatra made it, and he was here. If he can do it, I can do it.
Media Darlings: You’ve been singing since a very young age. But how did you get interested in musical theater?
Jordan Yurnet: I was 13, my voice had just started to drop. I got really discouraged. I thought my life was over. I’m never going to be able to sing again, this is it, I’m going to work at McDonald’s. I was really self-conscious. My voice is going to crack. I can’t sing the higher notes that I used to be able to sing as a child. It was this really traumatic experience for me. But the [high school’s then-] musical director kept encouraging me to audition. I got a speaking role in Hairspray, which was my first production at this school. I had three lines and was also a dancer. So that’s what exposed me to musical theater. And ever since, I’m so obsessed.
MD: You got the bug.
JY: I don’t even think it’s a bug; this is like a cult. Once you’re in, you can’t get out. I love it so much, I’m so passionate about it. I really can’t see myself doing anything that isn’t this. I don’t even care if I’m not performing; I just want to work in the theater.
MD: You mentioned some difficulties dealing with people. For me, I’m very shy and awkward, but it’s strange—if I get on a stage or put a microphone in my hand, I have no problem at all.
JY: Wow, we’re like the same exact person. The stage is my home. The stage is where I’m most comfortable. I’m never judged while I’m on stage. No one can make fun of me. No one can tell me anything. It’s just me and those lights and I’m free to be whoever and do whatever I want.