When Michael McElroy joined the cast of Rent in 1997, he had no idea what was in store. Before he was offered the part, he hadn’t seen the show, and he was wary of Rent’s hype.
But McElroy soon fell in love with the “beauty and rawness” of the music and its message. Fast forward to 2010, and he’s been playing Tom Collins on and off for more than a decade.While not the main character, Collins propels several of the shows main themes. He’s a black, gay HIV-positive AIDS activist and a former squatter of the contested loft. He’s also the instrument through which Angel, the scene-stealing Latina drag queen, is introduced to the rest of the characters.
And on top of all that, Collins also has one of the most touching (and acrobatic) songs in the whole book: the I’ll Cover You reprise. And that means, day in and day out, that McElroy has his work cut out for him.
We reached him on tour to ask the most important question: is it draining to sing every night? Here’s what he said.
It is one of the hardest things I’ve very done in my life. Just technically, it covers my entire vocal range. Everything.
I have to disassociate myself from the emotion a little bit, because technically I just have so much to do. For me, as a performer, I believe that I should let the audience have the emotional response. I just tell the story. If I break down, I’m not telling the story.
There have been a couple of times that that really came to pass. When we were on Broadway, and we were filming for the closing night and they had more lights and cameras in the house — so I could see the audience’s faces. That almost put me over the edge, because there were so many emotions going on in my life and that night, and in the show, and what that meant. I had to keep myself in check. I feel it, but I have to let the audience feel it moreso than me.
You really can’t go there every night. That loss is so intense and severe, it would put me in the crazy house. You know, as actors, whether you’re doing Medea or whatever, you know where you have to go. But you’re not really 100 percent emotionally in that place, or else you would go crazy.
Just a little something to whet your appetite. Look for a full-length piece (Rent: is it still relevant?) next week in Xtra and on Xtra.ca. Rent lands in Toronto Jan 12.