Two Rising Stars Are Attracted to "Rent's" Controversy and Its Irresistable Score

"Rent" stars Neil Patrick Harris and Wilson Cruz willingly admit they're not exactly musical-theatre veterans.

"This is my first musical," Harris said. The precocious star of "Doogie Howser, M.D." plays Mark, the story's filmmaker wanna-be and unofficial narrator. "Well, that's not exactly true. I did "Peter Pan" in a civic light opera production when I was 14. I was John Darling. I wore a top hat and got to fly, thank you very much."

"Musical theatre was part of my studies in college, but that's about it," said Wilson Cruz, who plays Angel, a flamboyant, cross-dressing homosexual. Like Harris, Cruz is best known for his TV roles. He won acclaim as Ricky, the troubled, introspective teen, in the critically lauded ABC series "My So Called Life."

So what drew two hot young television stars to the musical theatre stage?

"I saw ("Rent") in New York and was intrigued," Harris recalled. "I thought it lived up to the hype. I wasn't blown away by it, but certainly I could see its depth and breadth."

"But what I think is so remarkable about this show is that the more I listen to it and perform in it, the more interesting I think it is. It's a lot of information thrown at you pretty quickly, and if you're unfamiliar with it, it can take all your effort to keep up."

"There's a lot of subtle metaphorical stuff that (director) Michael (Greif) is doing that's deep. This show keeps getting more layers-it's like an onion."

Cruz was attracted to "Rent" for entirely different reasons.

"I was so amazed by the fact that there were all these people of color onstage, and it wasn't an issue. For once we see blacks and gays and lesbians as regular people with regular issues. These relationships were about love, not how to deal with being gay or a lesbian or a transsexual. It's just about how universal those experiences are."

Harris and Cruz agree that "Rent" fills a huge gap in the musical-theatre repertory.

"I think there's a desperate yearning for new material, especially new American-produced material," Harris said. "We've been looking for something that speaks to a different generation-and through it as well."

Despite its ostensibly iconoclastic look and sound, Cruz sees "Rent" as more firmly rooted in the Broadway tradition.

"Many people say "Rent" is revolutionary in the sense that it uses pop culture and current styles to address current issues," he said. "But "Hair" did the same thing. So I think "Rent" definitely follows along a more traditional path than you might think at first."

The most controversial part of "Rent's" storyline may be its unflinchingly honest portrayal of the less-than-attractive milieu-the rough-'n-tumble world of Manhattan's seedier streets and their offbeat denizens.

"I've felt our audiences here (in La Jolla) are in a bit of shock," Harris said. "I don't know, but I suspect it's because they're not used to seeing loud homeless people and a confrontive attitude. This isn't a La Jolla kind of setting."

"The problem won't be selling this show in London or Chicago, but in Peoria and Holland, Mich., " Cruz said. "We're (portraying) experiences that aren't anything like what you know in your home town, if you're from a place like that."

"In a way we feel that we're educating, informing and hopefully opening minds. I like to think that's my main job in playing Angel."

Cruz knows his role is "Rent's" hardest sell.

"The rough part is getting people to fall in love with this person they wouldn't necessarily understand or accept in their real life. I'm asking something really risky-to be compassionate and empathetic and, finally, really adoring of this person who is a man in woman's clothing."

Thanks to Katie for this article.