#76. FREDI WALKER-BROWNE - “A Broadway actress.”
In 1999, I went to Sarasota to visit a friend from summer camp. Jessica was (and still is) obsessed with Broadway musicals; posters of ‘42nd Street’ and ‘A Chorus Line’ adorned her bedrooms walls and original cast recordings were constantly being played. In my young infinite wisdom, I found the whole thing boring. My dad had raised me on rock n’ roll and so I preferred the music of groups like the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who while my brother had just pushed Guns N’ Roses and The Violent Femmes on me. Broadway was not on the agenda.
Frustrated during that weekend, Jessica wracked her brain for a way to get me to appreciate the stage. Then, it hit her: a rock musical. Riffling through her Broadway paraphernalia, she pulled out a big book bound with faux-duct tape and four letters haphazardly sprayed across the front.
"What’s that?" I asked, wrinkling my nose.
"Here," she said.
"Nah," I replied. "I’ve told you before, Jess. I don’t like Broadway stuff."
Jessica smiled, pushing the thick book into my hands. “It’s not Broadway,” she said. “It’s ‘Rent.’”
It’s hard to express what ‘Rent’ came to mean to me without sounding silly. The show, which hit Broadway in 1996, was a Bohemian rock musical written by Jonathan Larson and set in New York’s Lower East Side. Its cast comprised artists on the margins of society — a musician, a cross-dresser, a filmmaker, a dancer — as they lived, loved and survived the AIDS crisis. Before the show premiered on Broadway, Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm. ‘Rent’ became a smash hit. The message of living each day to the fullest punctuated by the sudden death of its creator.
Like a lot of people, I grew up in the suburbs feeling isolated. I was a weird kid. I can’t remember a time when the painful reality of my solitude wasn’t really apparent. I lived in a religious community, attended summer camp and day school with the God-obsessed, but that was only part of it. There was a lot inherently different about me. I never thought being gay was wrong — if anything I always seemed to identify with LBGTQ people. I loved art — books, music, movies, paintings, stage performance. I gravitated to the strange and the off-color. I loved the idea of aliens and ghosts, I listened to comedy records, I wrote short stories where the uncool girl became an international soccer star or got invited on to the Spice Girls tour bus. (I hate soccer and didn’t listen to the Spice Girls. I just desperately wanted to fall under everyone else’s defintion of cool.)
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was out-right laughed at by the people I considered my closest friends. “Why do you read so much?” “Are you actually writing stories in that notebook?” “Can’t you ever just be normal?”
I had questions too: Why were my friendships with other girls so hard to maintain? Why couldn’t I just like what everyone else liked? Why did I always feel like I was wearing a mask? Why couldn’t I just fit in?
One time I was so embarrassed about having no friends that I told my parents I was going over to someone’s house when really, I walked to a nearby Starbucks and read by myself for two hours. I’ve never admitted that anywhere else, but it’s true.
'Rent' was literally the first time I realized there were people like me in the whole world. It was the first time I heard the word “lesbians” without some disparaging remark following it. It was the first time I realized artists were out there, forming a community, understanding each other, existing in freedom, being weird. I was transfixed. I saw it four times on Broadway and more than that on tour. I saw it in standing room only. I saw it after waiting in the freezing cold. I saw it even though my family was sick of it.
So, when seeking a Broadway actor to interview for this project, I knew I wanted it to be someone from ‘Rent.’ In high school, I’d met Anthony Rapp at a book signing so it couldn’t be him, even though his Mark was my favorite character. I’d also met Idina Menzel (Maureen) briefly for work a few months ago so she was out. On a whim, I Googled “Fredi Walker-Browne,” the actress who’d played Joanne, Maureen’s girlfriend.
To my surprise, her website came up with a contact e-mail address. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ Two days later, a number I didn’t recognize showed up on my phone during work. Perplexed, I picked up.
"Hi Gaby? This is Fredi Walker-Browne," the voice on the other end said.
I nearly pooped my pants.
"What?!" I squeaked. "Oh, oh my gosh."
Fredi chuckled softly, “Are you okay?”
"No!" I gasped. "I’m a big fan of yours. Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re calling me right now."
Not my most professional moment.
Fredi kindly waited for me to calm down before saying she loved 100 Interviews and wanted to be part of it. Last week, she called to tell me she’d be at NYU on Friday rehearsing a new play she’s directing called “Caged Bird.” I was welcome to sit in.
Even though I was die-hard, I never saw Fredi originate the role of Joanne, the uptight lesbian lawyer she plays in ‘Rent’ because the original cast was already gone by the time I knew ‘Rent’ existed. I did see her, later, as Rafiki in ‘The Lion King’ — her name being the selling point my parents used to get me to go with my grandparents.
In person, Fredi is really beautiful, with long, dark braids down her back. She’s done some plus-size modeling, I find out from her website, and I can see why. She exudes an essence of “cool” that I never saw in Joanne. She tells me the role that made her famous was actually an aberration; before that, she’d played mostly Earth Mother types. This matches her presence much more now.
Fredi started acting when she was 14 years old, thanks to an amazing arts education program at her St. Louis high school. She spent that summer doing a musical review - her first professional job - and fell in love with theater. She performed in amusement parks, in Europe and in a Purim play that got her an Equity card.
But even before that, Fredi says she was “always an artist.”
"For me, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else," she says. "For a while it was hard, but I loved it. I remember I took a trip to New York with my family when I was eight years old. I remember being in the middle of Times Square and just knowing, this is where I belong. It was that clear. So high school or whatever else, I was just biding my time until I could get to where I’m supposed to be."
I can relate. I mentioned in a previous interview about believing New York City to be an escape from the alienation of the school day.
Even more than that, I have a distinct memory of being made fun of during a fourth grade class. Feeling a well of sadness in my tiny chest, I asked to be excused. I don’t know where the teacher thought I was going but I ended up standing at the top of the staircase of my school, looking at the floors below.
"I could jump right now," I thought. I was ten years old. "I shouldn’t exist anyway if no one else is like me. I should just die."
I stood there for a long time. Until the bell rang and students filed out of classrooms.
I’m not going to use the cliche that ‘Rent’ saved my life. It didn’t. Now that I’m older I understand that the show has flaws. That it’s cheesy. That it perhaps oversimplifies good and evil to bend its own agenda. There are a bunch of reasons I believed in “It Gets Better” long before Youtube was a thing. My supportive parents. New York City waiting for me. My online friends from Australia and Seattle and Boston and places where things were different.
But ‘Rent’ was a big one.
"What were you doing before ‘Rent’?" I ask Fredi as we sit across from each other on a bench in the practice studio. She says she was doing tech for another show.
"I literally climbed off the ladder from that show and went to the audition for ‘Rent’ and I was still gross from doing tech so I remember I kept apologizing for my appearance," she laughs. "But they were like, ‘No, no, it’s a grunge show!’"
"How did you feel after the audition?"
"I don’t really think about auditions," she says. "I mean, it wasn’t that simple. ‘Rent’ wasn’t what it was yet. I got two shows at the same time and I was originally in the ensemble for ‘Rent’ and my agent pushed for me to be a lead. And ‘Rent’ was a closer commute. I was in Brooklyn and the show was rehearsing in the Village. I liked that it was a younger, hipper thing. But really, that’s why I took it."
"Wow," I say. "But you had no way of knowing what it would become, I guess."
Fredi laughs, “Oh yeah, there are a lot of weird and serendipitous things about how I got ‘Rent.’ I mean, my landlords where I was living knew Jonathan [Larson] and a member of his family was my mother’s car dealer in St. Louis. I knew Daphne [Rubin-Vega] from working other shows. ‘Rent’ is full of coincidences for me.”
"That’s so hard for me to hear that you almost didn’t take it," I say.
"I remember December 5, 1995 was our very first day of rehearsal. Everyone who walked into the room was more beautiful than the last person. It was a very good-looking cast," she says. "Then, we got up and sang ‘Seasons of Love’ and I thought, ‘Wow. If this is dreck, it’s going to be the best-sung dreck anyone’s ever heard.’"
While I recover from the nerdy goosebumps I get hearing her talk about the first time they did ‘Seasons of Love,’ Fredi tells me the cast was making $305 a week and she was also working as an usher and wardrobe coordinator at another theater.
"Correct me if I’m wrong," I say, hoping I’m not, "but it seems like ‘Rent’ was different from other shows in the sense that usually the cast of a show are co-workers and ‘Rent’ seemed very much like family."
"Oh, almost immediately, yeah," she says.
"What do you think made the difference?" I ask.
"Jonathan’s death," she replies with no hesitation. "To this day that’s why we’re all still friends. And we’re not friends in the traditional sense. We’re more like family, like cousins. You have cousins you hardly ever talk to but when you see them, it’s like, ‘Oh god, we’re family’," she pauses. "Because usually, Broadway is a job, honey. You’re cordial and such, but with ‘Rent’ even when the replacements came in, it was nothing like that original fifteen."
"What was it like after ‘Rent’ blew up?" I ask. "You guys were like rock stars."
"Oh, it was insane. It was non-stop," she says. "Twenty hour days and interviews and photo shoots and recording the album. You don’t eat, you don’t sleep. You’re doing ‘Good Morning America’ and you’re freezing your butt off. You have to rehearse how it’s going to be at the Tony’s and how it’s going to be for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and there’s all these new agents coming after you with new auditions."
"Why do you think it became such an immediate sensation?" I ask.
"Because Jonathan died," she says. "It was so serendipitous and creepy that it just put the show through the stratosphere. Especially because of the lyrics being all about living each day. I mean, now it’s not just a Broadway show. And it rocketed Idina [Menzel] and Adam [Pascal]. I don’t know how they do it now, Taye [Diggs] and them now. The fame thing is so weird and arbitrary and so fleeting. It was so non-substantial that I never truly bought into it. It was nice to be a working actor. Even when I meet people now and sign autographs, I say, ‘I was just in a little Broadway show.’"
'Rent' fans, dubbed “Rent-heads,” are just as devoted as the moniker implies. Fredi says at the show's peak, crazy fans were following her home from the Nederlander Theater on 41st St. She's still a bit paranoid about that, asking me specifically not to give out her cell-phone number or where she lives.
"The biggest disappointment for fans is that I’m not actually a lesbian," she laughs. "It’s crazy. Some people still think I am and that I just haven’t figured it out yet. I’d come out of the theater and they’d get on their knees, you know, ‘We’re not worthy. You’re a goddess.’ I’d say, ‘That’s sweet but you have the wrong equipment.’"
I nod. I wasn’t that deluded of a fan, but I did see Joanne as the first strong lesbian role model in my mainstream view.
"I think it has a lot to do with a positive portrayal of a gay person," I say. "I’d never seen a three-dimensional lesbian character before ‘Rent.’ I mean, how do you feel when young people come up and tell you that?"
"Of course, it’s amazing to be such a positive role model," she says, emphasizing her words. "Of course, if gay kids come up to me and tell me I made it cool for them to be who they are and for them to be okay with it, then that’s amazing."
In all the fame mayhem, Fredi says she almost switched talent agents, briefly buying into the hype. In the end, she stayed with the same people who’d represented her for twenty years, and the ones who found her ‘Rent.’
"I don’t need you to flatter me," she says of her agents. "And I don’t need to prove I’m an artiste. I can prove it to myself. I want money and I don’t ever want you to lie to me. I know that I’m hard to cast."
"Really? Because I saw you as Rafiki," I say, "It was the whole reason I went to ‘The Lion King.’"
"My agents had to fight so hard for me to play Rafiki," she says, seeming amused by my compliment. "Everyone saw me as Joanne. I loved Rafiki. It’s the only role I’d do again in a heartbeat. I’ll never forget it as long as I live."
"Not Joanne?" I gasp. While I did enjoy her other roles, Joanne, to me, remains paramount.
"I can’t compare it. Joanne is her own thing," she says. "You know, there was a different song that Joanne and Maureen were supposed to sing [to each other] and then, Jonathan wrote ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ especially for me and Idina and it was so incredibly who we are. Really, I hardly knew Jonathan. He was the writer of the show and we worked together but I was hung up on being professional. People think I’m aloof or detached. But I saw that song [‘Take Me or Leave Me’] and I was…," she takes a deep breath, "I couldn’t believe it. It’s so much to have someone write a song for you, about you. I asked him, ‘When did you get to know me?’ It was perfect. I didn’t know he was watching me like that,” she pauses, looking down. “If I have one regret it’s that I didn’t get to know him better in life.”
I don’t get a chance to ask this, but when we break from talking one-on-one and she goes back to rehearsal, one of her actors does: “Did you see they did ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ on [the TV musical show] Glee?”
"I haven’t seen it yet," Fredi says, "but I got a million e-mails with the clip."
"Do you even watch Glee?" another actor chimes in.
"I don’t have to watch it," Fredi says, though her ‘Rent’ co-star Idina has guest-starred. "My students bring me all the clips. But you know, I ain’t mad at it! If it makes kids dig Broadway, then I’m all for it. I just would rather watch CNN or Law & Order. I live Glee."
She’s referring to a job she has as a musical director for high school kids in Monmouth County, New Jersey. She says she loves working behind the scenes as a director, even though acting was her original passion.
"There’s no onus to look fabulous as a director like there is as an actor," she says. "As a director, you’re allowed to age, for example. It’s more comfortable and it’s nice seeing the whole thing come together and helping my actors shine. But people always ask me why I stopped acting. I never stopped acting. I hit auditions like anyone else but is anybody writing that part? I’d love to do Mama Morton [from ‘Chicago’] but that’s going to go to [Queen] Latifah. There’s one decent part for a black actress - a blacktress - every few years and we’re all fighting over it."
In terms of roles, the most controversial one Fredi was denied was the one she originated — Joanne was recast in the 2005 film version of ‘Rent.’ Only two of the main characters were not asked back — Daphne Rubin-Vega, pregnant at the time of filming, was replaced by it-girl Rosario Dawson as Mimi, and Fredi was replaced by the younger Tracie Thoms as Joanne. I remember when I heard the news, I was appalled. How could they make a movie without two of the pivotal players?
Fredi seems to have accepted the way that went though, as it was largely reported she’d turned the role down due to her age. But she tells me something I didn’t know: she’d requested to make a cameo in the film and was never called back.
"I asked if I could be Joanne’s mom, if they personified her or if I could do Gwen [Stewart’s] role if she wasn’t going to," she says. "I thought, ‘It’s Rent! Of course, I want to come play with my friends! I don’t care if it’s a smaller role. I’ll be the bag lady!’ But Hollywood is weird. Then, they asked if we’d be insulted if they invited us to the premiere. I said, I’d be insulted if you didn’t invite us!"
Aside from the movie, Fredi and Daphne both participated in Rent reunions, most notably the five and ten year reunion shows with the entire cast.
We talk a bit about the writer behind “Caged Bird,” Myla Churchill, who’s waiting patiently for us to finish talking so she and Fredi can go home. Fredi laments that original writers like Myla aren’t getting their shows funded when the norm is big-budget disasters like the cursed ‘Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark.’ She says shows like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Shrek’ worked, but that she would still like to see Broadway return to simpler and fresher roots. She hopes since ‘Spiderman’ was such a mess, Broadway will turn back to what theater was like during ‘Rent.’
"I think the writing shape-shifted theater," she says of Jonathan Larson’s script. "That’s what Jonathan wanted - to mix up pop and rock and Broadway. I bet he’s in heaven doing a little dance of glee," she smirks. "Get it? Glee."
As I wrote in the beginning, the marriage of rock and Broadway is what brought me to ‘Rent’ in the first place. And a dozen years later, I am a writer living in New York City. It took work. It took getting stellar grades and a scholarship to a journalism college and living on my brother’s couch and a draining job search, but I did it. I got to New York and all those silly stories I was writing in my notebook, alone in my bedroom or while other kids pointed and laughed, those mean something now.
It’s not exactly Larson’s “La Vie Boheme” but it’s inspired by it. I can say that without shame.
“‘Rent’ was so important to so many people,” I tell Fredi in that NYU studio. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like to be part of that.”
"It’s a dream come true," she says. "From the time I was in my basement pretending to be Lena Horne and accepting my fake Tony in my mind, it was my dream."
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