Bohemian roommates Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal)
Only three major characters in Broadway musicals are named “Roger.” Two of them are gay.
The most famous Roger is my least favourite of the three roles: Roger Davis, the heterosexual romantic lead in 1996’s Rent. Jonathan Larson moved Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème from the garrets of Paris to the lofts of New York’s East Village. Bohème’s earnest poet Rodolfo is now Roger, an uninspired rocker who meets a neighbour carrying a candle. Rodolfo’s roommate Marcello, formerly a starving painter, becomes Mark Cohen, a neurotic videographer. Mimi remains Mimi – but as the parodist says in Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back, “in Bohème, she’s a sweet, shy seamstress. Now, she’s a CRACK-HEAD, NYMPHOMANIAC PROSTITUTE! YEAH!”
In his Act I solo “One Song Glory,” Roger describes himself as a “pretty boy front man who wasted opportunity.” That pretty much captures the role. Not what folks look for in a Roger.
My ACLU colleague Lauren and I saw the original cast of Rent on Broadway, with Adam Pascal as Roger. But I’ve always related more to his roommate Mark, the observant loner. Openly gay actor Anthony Rapp originated the role. Nowadays Rapp plays an openly gay Star Fleet officer on Star Trek Discovery, except when he’s busy in court speaking out as an early victim of Kevin Spacey’s lechery.
Whenever I’m introduced to other Generation X showtune fanatics, they invariably chant “RoGER, this is your moTHER.” They’re mimicking the message Roger’s mom leaves on the Boho Boys’ answering machine in Rent. It’s the scene transition labeled “Lyric #5” on the original cast recording:
Roger, this is your mother
Roger, honey, I don’t get these postcards –
“Moving to Santa Fe”
“Back in New York
Starting a rock band”
Roger, where are you?
Last week the online humour magazine McSweeney’s published an article titled “Financial Lessons from the Musical Rent.” It reminded me I’m not the Rent kind of Roger. Not because I’m gay – I just don’t live in his privileged world of self-absorbed magical thinking:
Opening a restaurant in Santa Fe is a lucrative business venture requiring absolutely no hard work. Just overcharge the wealthy clientele.
A used car is comparable in price to a used guitar.
A used car is comparable in price to a used guitar.
Supporting oneself and one’s artist friends by renting condos at the top of a building is a monstrous idea that could be hatched only by a sellout asshole, whereas having no jobs, ambitions, or means of paying for one’s life in the East Village is heroic.
Paying rent is optional.
|Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) and Roger DeBris (Gary Beach)|
Five years after Rent opened, Mel Brook’s The Producers won twelve Tony awards – the most ever, even more than Hamilton. Openly gay Broadway veteran Gary Beach won the 2001 best supporting actor Tony for his portrayal of flamboyant auteur Roger DeBris.
In The Producers, Max and Leo scheme to open a musical that’s guaranteed to immediately bomb, allowing them to keep their investors’ money. So they seek out the worst director in New York. Roger DeBris initially declines the invitation to direct the doomed “Springtime for Hitler” because of its downbeat subject matter:
ROGER: The theatre’s so obsessed
With dramas so depressed
It’s hard to sell a ticket on Broadway
Shows should be more pretty
Shows should be more witty
Shows should be more...
What’s the word?
No matter what you do on the stage
Keep it light, keep it bright, keep it gay!
Whether it’s murder, mayhem or rage
Don't complain, it's a pain
Keep it gay!
But Roger agrees to direct once the producers tell him he’s destined to win a Tony for transforming World War II into a musical “just as gay as anyone could possibly want.” When the actor playing Hitler breaks a leg (after Leo unluckily wishes him “Good Luck!” rather than “Break a leg!”), Roger must step into the role. According to New York Times critic Ben Brantley, Beach’s performance was “an unqualified treat”:
In the show’s high point, the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence of the musical-within-the-musical, Mr. Beach proves himself fluent in every idiom of vintage musical comedy, variously bringing to mind Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Robert Preston, Van Johnson and Eddie Cantor.
A Roger for the ages.
|Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart)|
In The Producers, Roger shares his apartment with the equally flamboyant Carmen Ghia – who is technically not a Broadway character named Roger, merely Roger DeBris’s “common-law assistant” played by the implausibly straight actor Roger Bart. Both Gary Beach and Roger Bart reprised their roles in the movie.
I didn’t see The Producers on Broadway. But I saw Roger Bart play Snoopy in the 1999 revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Anthony Rapp played Charlie Brown, the same role I played in Bellingham community theatre forty years ago. Roger Bart won his Tony award for Best Supporting Actor. Kristin Chenoweth won her Tony award originating the role of Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally. This year my mother and I saw Kristin sing in Bellingham at the Mount Baker Theatre’s 95th birthday celebration.
|Snoopy (Roger Bart) and Sally (Kristin Chenoweth)|
Everything is connected.
When Jonathan Larson wrote the musical that became Rent, the role corresponding to Rodolfo in La Bohème was originally named “Ralph.” Larson renamed the character “Roger,” after a struggling actor/waiter friend who helped record some of the original Rent demo tapes: Roger Bart.
Doesn’t Adam Pascal look more like a Ralph anyway?
“This is one of Roger’s favourite songs. And in the show the song comes from, it’s sung by a character named Roger.” -Kerry O'Donovan
|Gordon (Jonathan Groff) and Roger (Aaron Lazar)|