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Caissie Levy, Kevin Spencer
- Maureen and Roger in Rent at Hamilton Place
VIEW Magazine - September 2002
by Kerry Corrigan

            It’s probably best if you start lining up right now. By going for the $20. seats that go on sale two hours before performance time, you’ll be sitting in the first two rows, up with the rentheads, who know the show, the songs, the performers of Rent, by heart. Big heart.
            They also know the story of the young playwright who wrote the brash musical that set Broadway on its ear six years ago.
            It sounds like a script. A young, untested composer sets out to reinvent the American musical, using characters and situations culled from the urban environment of New York City. Waiting on tables, living in a walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen, constantly rewriting, he lives with the very pointed dream of becoming a Broadway success. As inspiration he takes the starving artists of the Paris garrets in Puccini’s La Bohème. 
            Pressed to come up with a one-sentence synopsis of the play during the endless rewrites, Jonathon Larson finally manages: “Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.”
            When the young playwright died unexpectedly, at 35, from an aortic aneurysm, the day before his beloved creation opened off-Broadway to mostly loving acclaim, the cruel irony must have been virtually unbearable for all of the participants – particularly director Michael Greif, who worked so closely with Larson to bring the workshopped show to life.
            With Aids and drug addiction ravaging the artistic landscape like a plague, death is a familiar commodity for the young men and women in Rent. Larson’s theme of optimism in the face of tragedy, living each day to the fullest, shines through on soaring melodies like “Seasons of Love”, on scorching tortured-soul wailers like “One Song Glory”, in the cheeky lyrics of the title song.
            Rent, as in, how we gonna pay it?
            It was an instant phenomenon on Broadway, aided by the house policy of holding the first two rows for rush sale, cheap. Kids started camping out the night before, seeing the show many times over. The fanatics in those two front rows every night presumably identified with the disadvantaged, ill-fed, troubled youth on the stage.
            And Rent sure sewed up the awards in 1996, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the NYC Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, 4 Tonys, 6 Drama Desk Awards, 3 Obies, etc., etc.
            Now two touring shows are criss-crossing the continent, featuring the work of the original production team, including director Greif, choreographer Marlies Yearby and a host of costume and makeup artists.
            Two Hamilton natives, featured performers in Monday’s performance at Hamilton Place, are pleased to be bringing their special show to their hometown, even if it is for only one night, rather than the customary 8-night run.
            Both actors display a reverence for the message, the experience, of Rent.
            Caissie Levy, 21, graduated from Westdale in 1999, after appearing with the Player’s Guild, the Tivoli and David Dayler’s New Faces. Upon successfully auditioning for The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in NYC, she got a taste of the lifestyle exemplified in Rent.
            “New York City just sort of gets under your skin and you’re a part of it,” she admits, describing her starving-artist lifestyle in her first year in New York  – living in an old, rundown apartment building, with cockroaches and older, mentally ill residents to contend with.
            “It toughened me up,” she concedes with a laugh.
            While finishing up her second and final year in the program, and working on the big school production, Caissie joined the rest of her class in procuring an agent, and starting to hit auditions around town. Amazingly enough, her first audition in the big apple was for Rent. “This time I got lucky!”
            When she first saw Rent, in Toronto, “it really did inspire me. With Rogers and Hammerstein, it’s hard to be real for today’s kids.” She sensed the reality of the setting and the stories, a reality that she now tries to bring to her role of Maureen, a performance artist who has only recently embraced bi-sexuality.
            Levy is confidant that she finds the right New York spin for her character, despite the cultural differences that she admits to noticing when pressed. “I miss Canadians,” Caissie says, stating she had a blast growing up in Hamilton. “It was a really happy time.”
            Levy just joined the company on August 27. Kevin Spencer, 28, who plays Roger, the HIV-positive rock musician, has been with the show since October 2001.
            I asked how he felt about another Hamiltonian joining the show. “Quite nice, actually,” was his response, adding that he wasn’t surprised at all, knowing the level of talent emanating from Hamilton.
            “For a steel town, Hamilton has such a huge artistic community,” he enthuses, and he should know.
            He started sneaking into sound checks at the Corktown when he was fifteen, and soon found himself sharing the stage with the plethora of rock acts that developed in Hamilton in the 80’s, bands like the Florida Razors and All Good Children, with his band, The Misunderstood. He played bass and, more importantly in his training for his current role in Rent, sang lead vocals.
            Spencer states that Razor and Junkhouse lynchpin Tom Wilson was “a father figure of rock and roll” during his early introduction to the professional music scene.
            After getting air support from CFMU, and winning a finalist spot in CFNY’s New Music Search, Spencer thought that The Misunderstood were on their way. Instead, a format change at CFNY snafooed their support. Around that time, he got an offer to come in as a sideman for Rhymes With Orange, Canada’s biggest independent band at the time.
            He broke up his band and moved to Vancouver, where he toured for 6 years, with Orange and with another band he formed, called Mudgirl, that included gigs at Lillith Fair and opening spots at stadium shows for I Mother Earth and Moist.
            So far Spencer’s curricula vitae, unlike Levy’s, would support the rumour that Rent hires inexperienced theatre artists for its cast. Spencer laughs and admits that, except for high school, his experience is on concert stages, not theatre ones.
            It was Hill Park high school drama teacher Bill Cook’s “reverse psychology” challenge that prompted him to audition for West Side Story (“you couldn’t do that . . . could you?”)
            The audition for Rent in Vancouver was more of a lark than anything, and soon forgotten. But not by the interviewers, who tracked him down 6 months later to join the cast of a new touring production. Their only concern, after hearing him sing, was “can you do that night after night?”
            “Are you kidding?” laughed Spencer. After touring as a front man for six years in Canada? “Sure!”
            Spencer explains to me the “two mantras” of the play, “measure your life in love” and “no day but today”.
            “It’s not your typical musical at all. It’s a human play, people often don’t know how to react . . . it’s an information overload.” And, like Levy, Spencer has a special affection for the rentheads.
             “They can ease the flow.” Spencer explains, “almost like a conductor at the front of the orchestra. Ultimately, the audience just needs to jump in with both feet.”
           Go for it, Hamilton. The rentheads will.
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