525,600 minutes is all you get in a year. Make sure you spend about 165 of those minutes seeing the Broadway phenomenon Rent this week at TPAC. The touring production is in town this week celebrating 20 years of inspiring audiences the world over. HCA/Tri-Star Health is partnering again with TPAC for the 2016 Broadway series to bring this work to Nashville.
This week I had the chance to have a conversation with the actor portraying one of the most memorable characters from the show: Angel. Known for her antics and beating on drums, she is arguably the most beloved member of the company because of her innocence and zest for life.
David Merino is making his professional debut in the role of Angel. Although just recently turning 21 himself, he understands the gravity of this role. A student of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he has put his schooling on hold to be a part of the tour. We spoke by phone while he was relaxing in his hotel room in Durham, North Carolina.
We began talking about his education at NYU.
Going to NYU was a crazy decision, in that it’s slightly odd. There’s really no campus, it’s all over the city. So you have to live in the city. You’re less of a college student and more of a New Yorker taking classes there. So being immersed in that world as a freshman in college was somewhat overwhelming, but it also taught me the most about existing and living your life. A lot about being an adult, even though I was just a teenager. It was a great lesson and a great experience for sure. And NYU is a great school. Everyone was amazing, the community was amazing. I’m studying at Tisch, the arts college. I study musical theater there. The program is amazing, my classes, the people, everything was just great. I’m technically a senior still. I’ve had to take the year off to do this tour. I’ll be finishing after the tour is over.
Dropping everything for this role was easy for Merino, because he loves this play so much.
This is my dream role. I just turned 21 two weeks ago and this is my professional debut. I’m very young and very new to all of this.
We gushed for a few minutes at the fact of how perfect this was, to be so young and to have a role like this as a professional debut. After we collected ourselves from “fan-girling” about how amazing the role itself is, we digressed into his history in the role as Angel and his thoughts on the drag community.
I love drag culture. It’s something I adore and invest a lot of my time in. I think drag queens and the whole queer community is so admirable to me. I personally don’t have a lot of experience (as a drag queen), but I have played Angel twice before. Once, I did it with a bunch of friends in Los Angeles, which is where I’m originally from. They put on the show and asked me to play Angel at a very small seventy seat theater. Super low budget, but it was a lot of fun. And also, this past year as a junior at NYU, we did a full stage production. From that, I got an audition appointment for the anniversary tour. And then five callbacks later and three weeks of waiting and not hearing anything, I got the call. So, I have just a little bit of a history with Angel. I have always loved Angel, it’s always been a dream role. So even though I have a little bit of history with Angel, everything else (in the drag world) I’m pretty new to it.
We then shifted to a discussion on the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties and how different it is today.
I was born in 1995. This show opened on Broadway in 1996, just a couple months after I was born. So I completely missed knowing about. It wasn’t something my parents would talk to me about. But once I was able to have conversations about it, performing this role for the third time, every time I learned something new. I immersed myself into doing a lot of research and watching documentaries, even from this production. Everyone in the company watched a documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the effects of it. In this particular one, it was people talking about their experiences of what it was like being in New York at this time. So although I’m familiar with it, I wasn’t personally affected by it at the time of course, but it has been a lot to jump into. But it’s been a huge lesson. One thing that affected me most was when we had someone come in and talk to us about the roles. They said that Angel represents everyone that was innocent and didn’t deserve to die so young. They just made a couple of mistakes living their lives the best way they could as a young, starving artist. So getting that kind of responsibility made me really get into shape for this role. I have a responsibility of representing a lot of amazing people that just lost their lives. So it’s been an amazing experience, and such a beautiful one. I usually start crying at every single performance when, spoiler alert, I’m supposed to die. It’s just so intense, but at the same time, it’s also very beautiful for me to take this responsibility.
Act one is just so much fun. It’s just a completely different show for me in act two. In act one, I’m dancing and spinning and kicking and singing and it’s just so much fun. Then in act two, it’s just a complete turnaround that affects every single person.
We then shifted thoughts towards the gay community. Merino identifies as a gay man. We talked about how it felt to be the torch-bearer in this play for the part of the community that is now identified, usually as queer. He struggled with the question a bit, trying to piece his words together because it is such a great responsibility.
I feel like it all becomes apparent when I meet people after the show. When they come up to me and share how meaningful the role is, or how I portrayed it, which is a huge honor to get a compliment like that. Being so young and so new, to get complimented on my Angel is very crazy for me. But to be a torch-bearer, oh my goodness, OH! This is such a hard question. I guess I really just haven’t put that label on myself for the whole gay community. I will say that I’ve had a lot of people come up to me, even yesterday, someone came up to me at the stage door in tears saying ‘Angel means the world to me. I’m trans, and Angel’s character helped me come out and helped me realize who I can be and who I’m allowed to be, just as a human being.’
So having that responsibility is one I will take any day. If I can help someone or inspire someone, put a smile on their face or justify someone’s coming out, I will take that responsibility because I would love to be that for someone. I’m not someone who would be the Grand Marshall of a pride parade, but I will do anything to inspire people. And if I can help justify anyone’s sexuality, just by existing on stage, I am sold and I will gladly take that responsibility.
If you’d like to see this production of Rent, you have a very special way to do it. On Friday night’s performance, your Nashville steering committee of the Human Rights Campaign has partnered with TPAC to have a pre-show cocktail reception. Hors d'oeuvres are being served and TPAC’s cash bar will be open for attendees. You can receive a discount (Friday night only) by using discount code HRCRENT at this link and can RSVP for the show here to be included in the count for the cocktail party. It is confirmed that someone from the cast will be there to speak to the crowd before the show, so you definitely will not want to miss it.
If you can’t join HRC for Friday night’s show, Rent is running Tuesday–Sunday at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. Tickets are available at TPAC’s box office, by phone, or at this link here.
Photo: David Merino (center) is joined by Jasime Easler and Kaleb Wells, photographed by Emilio Madrid-Kuser