It’s been 20 years since Rent debuted and changed the landscape of American theatre. From magazine covers, to fans lined up around the block, to winning the Pulitzer, Rent was the Hamilton of its time. In the middle of that swirl of fandom and activism was Wilson Jermaine Heredia who played Angel and went on to originate the role in the West End and in the film. For Heredia, who had until then worked in Off Broadway shows, making his Broadway debut in such a huge show was overwhelming.
“I felt like I was in shock initially,” Heredia said. “When Rent hit, we were the center of attention and for most of us, we were completely new to it. It was a whirlwind, it was scary, we were self-exposed but felt appreciated at the same time…it was a roller coaster.”
Rent brought Heredia opportunities he never imagined would come his way, as well as a Tony Award for his performance as Angel. Tony night, he was shocked to win and said he remembers reminding himself, I’m just me. Tomorrow, I have to go do the show again.
“I will say,” he explained, “the Tony experience and being an award winner pales in comparison to the impact it had on people’s lives. It was a socio-political movement that really started a conversion and started to heal families who were dealing with AIDS & LGBT lifestyle issues.”
The conversation that Rent helped bring to light was one of the catalysts for changing the face of HIV and AIDS. The impact the show has had on people’s lives didn’t stop when it closed on Broadway after 12 years of performances.
“I was doing a talk at a convention, years after I’d been in the show, and a father told me he had a gay daughter,” he said. “He said he didn’t understand or accept her lifestyle but my character in the film caused him to accept her. It sent chills down my whole body. Thinking about it right now, I’ve got chills. It wasn’t just a pop culture phenomenon; it was a real socio-political movement. It’s one thing to be a part of something that big, it’s another to be a part of something that important.”
Heredia says he is still honored to be a part of such a ground-breaking production and to be a mouthpiece for so many whose voices were marginalized.
“The conversation is still alive and well,” he said. “20 years ago, we didn’t have legalized LGBT marriage and now we do. I’m proud of my contribution and I’m proud of other people carrying the torch and not just letting the message of Rent go down in history as just a pop phenomenon.”
The message of Rent was something that resonated deeply with Heredia.
“I was part of the club kid era in the 90’s. The majority of my friends at that time were straight, gay, trans…we were a motley crew of people. The two things we had in common were that we loved each other and we loved music.”
That love off stage directly correlated with the love and embrace he felt onstage. Despite the fact that he was a straight man playing a gay character, he said he was fully embraced for playing the character truthfully and with heart.
“That’s the beauty of the show. It’s about acceptance and I loved the fact the LGBT community accepted me and never shouted ‘he’s not gay and can’t play that role.’ I’m an actor and I’m playing a human being. Angel was about love; Unconditional love.”
Today’s Broadway phenomenon mirrors much of what made Rent so talked about. Heredia applauds the success of Hamilton in continuing to portray acceptance on stage and off.
“A very good musical or piece of art will always have longevity if the truth is spoken. It stops being a pop movement and becomes and actual movement,” Heredia said.
Today, Heredia spends his time working on a varied set of projects for both the stage and the web.
“At the end of the day, I’m an actor and an artist first. I enjoy the craft and whatever magnitude of the show. Small shows, big shows, I enjoy it all. We have a responsibility as actors. We have an audience’s night in our hands and we need to make sure when they leave, they take away something good. I teach Masterclasses and anytime I get a chance to speak to a group of people who were affected by Rent, I jump at the chance to do that.”
As for the aftermath of the Rent fandom and his Tony win, Heredia says he stayed level-headed by focusing on the message of the show and bringing honesty to his character. Well, that and his mother.
“Maybe a couple months later after the Tonys, my mom looked at me and said ‘You know, you could still be a doctor.’ The entire experience was humbling but it’s good to have people around you that humble you.”