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"Talent for RENT"
Dance-club diva Daphne Rubin-Vega turns up the heat on Broadway
Offstage, Daphne Rubin-Vega could be mistaken for just another struggling young actress. She still
lives in a one-room Manhattan apartment, still sleeps on a pull-out couch and stores all her
possessions in one tiny closet. But say the magic word, and her pet parakeets Cielo and Mar- Sky
and Sea- give the game away. "Whenever they hear the word 'Tony,'" says Rubin-Vega, "they start
singing and flying around the house."
They've been at it, says Rubin-Vega, ever since she was nominated for a Tony Award last month for
her starring role in Rent-the acclaimed rock and roll Broadway musical inspired by Puccini's La
Boheme- in which she plays Mimi, and HIV-positive junkie-dancer at an S&M club. Considering that
her last job involved scrubbing floors as a sculptor's assistant, the turnaround has left the
Panama-born performer dizzy. Since the Broadway opening in April, she has appeared on the cover
of Newsweek and chummed with the likes of Mel Gibson and Jodi Foster, who have been among her
congratulatory visitors backstage. "It's been so fast," says Rubin-Vega, 27. "It's as if I just got my
driver's license and my first car is a Lamborghini."
Not that she has had trouble keeping pace. "Daphne's smart and edgy," says Rent's director Michael
Greif. "But she's really loving too, and I think all those qualities come through."
The edge developed early. The youngest of three children of Jose Mercedes Vega, a carpenter, who
died when she was 2, and his wife, Daphne, a nurse, she moved to Manhattan seven years later when
her mother, a dark-skinned Latina, married a Jewish writer, Leonard Rubin. One morning young
Daphne woke to find the words "N***er Lover" painted on an outside wall of the family's Greenwich
Village home. "I was scared. My brothers were ready to kick ass," says Rubin-Vega. "But my mother
said, 'Leave it there. Don't take it off.' One day soon after, I came home from school and the mother of
one of the kids in the neighborhood was standing over him, and that kid was taking it off himself.
That told me a lot about my mom."
She had little time to learn more. Rubin-Vega's mother died when she was 10, and as a teen, Daphne
rebelled. "My dad kicked me out of the house when I was a teenager," says Rubin-Vega. "I acted like I
was grown-up and lived full throttle when I wasn't capable of handling it." She began hanging out
with musicians- tagging along with friends to recording sessions with David Bowie and Chaka
Khan-and started writing her own songs as lead singer of the late-1980's girl-group Pajama Party.
Earlier this year she topped the Billboard dance chart with her solo hit "I Found It."
Musical theater had never been high on Rubin-Vega's agenda, but she wasn't about to turn her back
on a potential paycheck 19 months ago when her agent persuaded her to audition for writer
Jonathan Larson's East Village workshop production of Rent. At the time she was getting by on
occasional acting gigs and odd jobs. "I blared out 'Roxanne' by the Police, and when I was through,
Jonathan said, "There's our Mimi."
A year passed before Rent began rehearsals for its Off-Broadway run. Then a tragedy occurred. After
the show's final dress rehearsal on Jan. 25, Larson, 35, collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm.
"You don't even remember how you feel," she says now of hearing the news. "It was a dull, unreal
thud in the back of my head."
That evening, as a stark tribute to Larson, the cast began their opening-night Off-Broadway
performance seated, without makeup or costumes. But somehow it just didn't seem right. "I was
thinking, 'Jonathan didn't write this for anyone to sit down and sing.' " says Rubin-Vega. So when
the time came for her climatic solo "Out Tonight" she climbed up on a table and gave it all she had.
"By the end of the first act we were all jumping on those tables. So we put the second act on its feet,
and it was electric, a really charged moment."
Rent has continued to set off sparks, winning a posthumous Pulitzer for Larson, and four Tonys.
Though she plays a drug addict with a death sentence, Rubin-Vega says every performance is "life
affirming. It's not about death. It's about living." Meanwhile, Rubin-Vega is learning a few things
about living life with fame. "I get free meals and clothes, and that never happened before," she says.
"Celebrity is an interesting monster."