Shaun Toohey almost gave up on musicals entirely. The Brockville-born performer grew up watching Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies Sunday mornings with his mom. But as a post- pubescent rebellion kicked in, he ditched old Hollywood in favour of new-wave pop by bands such as Eurythmics and Culture Club.
“I grew my hair long on one side and wore a bowler hat like Boy George used to in the early days,” the Ottawa educator and performer laughs. “I never got up the nerve to wear makeup, but I think if I’d lived in a larger city I might have. The ’80s consisted mostly of stuff like Cats and Phantom of the Opera. I was still interested in other kinds of theatre, but I had decided musicals were totally uncool.”
That all changed one day in 1996 when a friend played him the soundtrack for Rent, shortly after the show exploded on Broadway. Based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, the story of aspiring artists battling poverty, addiction and AIDS in Manhattan’s Lower East Side captured his imagination. For the first time, he found people singing about things he could relate to.
“It spoke to the experience of my generation, and it had a rock score I could be unashamed to sing along with,” he says. “In a way, Rent allowed me to come out of the closet about my love of musicals by making them cool again.”
The original production ran 12 years and toured extensively, including a stop at the National Arts Centre in 1997. To say Toohey is excited to perform in Orpheus Musical Theatre’s production is a considerable understatement. The self-described Rent-Head (a term that refers to folks who regularly camped out for tickets to the show) saw the NAC version six times.
Of the several roles he plays, the leader of an HIV support group may be the most meaningful for the long-time activist. A regular volunteer at Bruce House (a community organization that provides support for people living with HIV), he’s no stranger to the epidemic’s realities, something Rent explores unflinchingly.
Though four of the eight main characters are living with the disease, it’s not just the representation of individual stories but the specific era in AIDS history Toohey identifies with. Rent takes place after testing was introduced and AZT went on the market, a time often thought of as the second wave in the epidemic; it was the first show to document Toohey’s generation’s unique struggle.
“I was part of the group in their teens when the news of Rock Hudson broke,” he says. “When you’re struggling to figure out your sexuality and just beginning to become sexually active, finding out these choices can cost you your life informs every aspect of how you view yourself. My generation’s story of AIDS is less about knowing you would die than it was about trying to figure out how to live.”
In the 16 years since Rent premiered, the realities of HIV have changed dramatically, with the focus shifting from preventing deaths to preventing new infections and ensuring continued access to medications. Though it plays at times as a period piece, Toohey stresses the value in looking back.
“There will be a lot of younger people in our community who don’t know that history and who don’t know anyone who died,” he says. “It’s an amazing production with incredible talent on stage, and it’s the first time it’s being performed in Ottawa since the touring production came here in the ’90s. But more importantly, I think, is that telling these stories is how we honour the people who have died and how we pass on our history to the next generation.”