Battle Brews Over Dueling NYC ‘Rent’ Prods

rent-poster-detail.jpgWhat started out as a warm fuzzy tribute to Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rent has turned into a bit of a musical tussle. The Harbor Lights Theater Company in Staten Island, which just began touting its September 18 through October 4 production was blindsided today by news of another production by the  5th Floor Theatre Company, whose weekend revival at Long Island City’s Secret Theatre, September 23-27, became the dominant theater story following a report in Playbill.

“I’m not familiar with the 5th Floor, but my they must be a non-professional company, because as per the licensing rules, there can be only one professional production per city,” Harbor Lights Founder and Executive Artistic Director Tamara Jenkins told MaxTheTrax.

“We’re the first equity theater company in Staten Island, and we’re doing some amazing stuff. We just finished Gypsy, starring Tony nominee Sally Mayes. With our upcoming productions you’ll see major talent coming over — Grammy, Tony and Oscar nominees. It’s very exciting. Our director, Alex Perez, has toured Rent nationally and has a completely new vision he’s going to present. We did not want a carbon copy, we wanted a fresh, young, cast – not of imitators, but of real people,” Jenkins added.

The Harbor Lights Theater Company is based at the the Music Hall at Snug Harbor, a 680-seat venue, and the second-oldest concert hall in New York City (after Carnegie Hall).  Located on Staten Island’s North Shore, it is part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, which is recently reaping the fruits of three decades of restoration and development. Jenkins and Jay Montgomery, who co-founded the HLTC in 2010, are using it as a cultural springboard to launch high-profile stage productions into a community that hasn’t been known for its arts endeavors.

A representative from Music Theater International, which licenses the material for stage, wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the dueling productions and said he would investigate and get back to us. Representatives for Secret Theater were contacted but could not immediately be reached for comment.

Charles Santoro is the Musical Director for the Harbor Lights production, whose case includes: Travis Artz (Roger,) Nick Devito (Mark,) Denzel Edmondson (Benny,) Madeline B. Fansler (Joanne,) Monte J. Howell (Tom Collins,) Michael J. Mainwaring (Angel,) Emily Jeanne Phillips (Mimi,) and Zuri Washington (Maureen.) Filling out the cast are Philip Bolton, Hannah K MacDonald, Nate McClure, Gavyn Pickens,  Ben Rosenbach, Michael Sheehy (Gordon,) and Josephine Spada.

The 5th Floor Theatre Company has Nick Brennan directing, with musical direction by Andy Peterson and choreography by John de los Santos. The cast is comprised of Bernard Holcomb (Collins), Mia Johnson (Joanne), Lindsay Lavin (Maureen), Nina Negron (Mimi),
 André Revels (Benny), Dan Rosenbaum (Roger),
 Daniel Clayton Smith (Mark) and 
Anthony Wright (Angel). The Secret Theater is  a “black box,” which would put it at fewer than 100 seats.

A retelling of Puccini’s La Boheme for the MTV-generation, Rent transfers Puccini’s young artists to New York City’s East Village and bohemian Alphabet City at the end of the millennium.  The late composer and playwright Jonathan Larson picked up a Pulitzer for drama for his work, which also won four Tonys. Rent’s rollicking score boasts “One Song Glory,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” “I’ll Cover You,” and the now iconic pop anthem “Seasons of Love.”

Rent originally opened Off-Broadway January 25, 1996, at the New York Theatre Workshop and moved to Broadway in April, going on to run 5,123 performances. In 2011 it was revived for a year. It’s the ninth longest-running Broadway show and has earned north of $280 million.

If this is how much excitement the pre-anniversary stirs up, one can only imagine what 2016, the year of Rent’s 20th Anniversary, will bring.

12 Responses to "Battle Brews Over Dueling NYC ‘Rent’ Prods"

  1. Karen O'Donnell  August 26, 2015 at 3:56 am

    The owners of Harbor Lights Theatre Company have a lovely mission…to present professional theatre on Staten Island. However, they should research their community before making statements like “Jenkins and Jay Montgomery, who co-founded the HLTC in 2010, are using it as a cultural springboard to launch high-quality stage productions into a community that didn’t previously have that in its midst”. Staten Island has a long history of cultural diversity, and in particular a rich history of theatre with high quality productions from several different theatre companies. Those companies range from small community theaters that have been active for over 40 years to large companies that fill 500 seat theaters. In fact Harbor Light’s biggest competitor is a community theatre group (In The Wings) housed in the same building at Snug Harbor Cultural Center. A production isn’t “high quality” simply because it’s “professional”…or because it is a union production. This is something that needs to be explained to HLTC’s owners. They are insulting the members of the Staten Island community by continuing to insist that they have, all of a sudden, introduced culture to an Island that was rich with culture before they ever opened their doors!

  2. Paula Parisi  August 26, 2015 at 5:01 am

    Actually, that was me, the author of the piece, editorializing, not a quote from the HLTC founders. I certainly didn’t mean it as a slight against other creative efforts, and you make a good point. It would have been more accurate had I written “high-profile,” rather than “high-quality.” Frankly, I kind of thought they’d be the only ones doing any sort of serious theater on Staten Island, so thank you for educating me and setting the record straight. It’s wonderful to learn that In the Wings and other groups are presenting serious stage productions on Staten Island (and I’m happy to write about them, too, if they’re doing plays involving music, which is the focus of this site). There are definitely preconceptions that make cultural recognition a bit of an uphill battle for Staten Island, so it’s great that you took the time to ensure credit is given where credit is due.

  3. Amy  August 26, 2015 at 10:13 am

    This is a non-story and you should be ashamed of stirring up controversy where there is none at all. Harbor Lights offers Equity showcase agreements or whatever and 5th Floor is non-union. I have seen a couple of their shows and they were great. Both were granted rights. Big deal. Also, you spelled Jonathan Larson’s name wrong, along with a host of other errors.

    • Paula Parisi  August 26, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      Aww, c’mon! Give me a little credit; I’ve got people talking about theater (and in L.A., that is a huge accomplishment!) Thank you for pointing out that Larson’s name was misspelled on second reference. If you’d care to point out any other errors I’d be happy to correct those, too.

      • Amy  August 26, 2015 at 8:07 pm

        So stirring up controversy with no facts is a good thing? Um. No.

      • Amy  August 26, 2015 at 8:09 pm

        And no, you can proofread your own article.

  4. Jenny Kelly  August 26, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Staten Island has a thriving theatre community (shameless plug – my small company is putting up Silence! the Musical in October, and just put up an original piece about addiction entitled Down in a Hole this past weekend)…

    Staten Island Shakespeare
    Sea View Playwrights
    In the Wings
    Hemlock Theatre
    Sundog Theatre

    All bringing wonderful, diverse productions.

    I have worked with Harbor Lights, and they are a lovely company, but I agree with Karen that it does come of as insulting.

    • Paula Parisi  August 26, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      Feel free to email info about your musical to and if I can find an angle I will cover it. Also, I love Shakespeare, so appreciate all the info. I lived on Staten Island as a child, and it sounds like, since then, its developed quite a thriving arts community. (Not that I would have necessarily noticed at the time. I didn’t start reading Shakespeare until I was 9.)

  5. Tamara Jenkins  August 26, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Dear Karen and Jenny,

    As the author wrote, those were her words, not ours. Nobody here at Harbor Lights has EVER said anything about no culture on Staten Island prior to HLTC. It is sad that people have interpreted it as such. We have only said we are the first and only professional EQUITY theater company on Staten Island. Our facts have been verified by AEA. We are an actual Equity company. We use an LOA. We pay health and pension. We are NOT using a showcase agreement. We are a full on Equity Theater Company. That is the truth. That is in no way insulting to anyone else. I think there is a problem when you call another theater company competition. That, frankly, is extremely small minded and small town. We do not feel we are competing with any other theater company. Each one has its mission. Each one has its own audience and there is room for all and MANY MORE! I am surprised by Karen O’Donnell’s misinterpretation. Very disappointing.

  6. Jay Montgomery  August 26, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    I am shocked at Karen O’Donnell’s response. The “objectionable” words are the author’s, not our’s, and I would think that would be obvious. However, like it or not, Ms. Parisi’s comments on the preconceptions about Staten Island are spot on; take it from a producer who faces down News York City agents, managers, designers, directors, and musicians on a regular basis, touting the experience of working on Staten Island, while trying to convince people that they don’t need a visa to get here.
    We have done nothing but champion the arts scene on Staten Island. We have never, ever been critical or dismissive of the local theater community. In fact, just the opposite is true. We have bent over backwards for five and a half years trying not to step on anyone’s toes or hurt anyone’s feelings. We have attended theater produced by every other entity on Staten Island — a support that has rarely, rarely been returned — and delivered heart felt congratulations on every occasion. It’s shocking that this misperception about Harbor Lights still exists, We’ve done nothing but offer friendship to anyone who’s crossed our path. Unbelievably, considering Ms.O’Donnell’s comments, we have, perhaps a dozen times, actually reached out to, directly called local actors we didn’t know, inviting them to audition for a particular project, because someone local recommended them, and have been told ‘no’ in every single case. Every single case — told ‘no’ by actors who didn’t know us, and had never seen a Harbor Lights production. The vast majority of them still haven’t, and one would think that anyone who considered his or herself an “actor” would have attended at least one of our 21 productions in five years out of sheer curiosity about an Equity company working in his or her back yard.
    Which brings us to the issues about professionalism and “quality.” We are, for the record, the first and only Equity theater company in the history of Staten Island. Sorry, but that is a fact, and that comes directly from Equity. We have a full union contract, working on a Letter of Agreement, and we pay full pension and health benefits, as well as regular dues. I know that several other companies on the Island have employed Equity actors on occasion, but in those cases the contracts are ‘showcase’ or ‘guest artist’ — no benefits are paid, and there is no obligation to hire any specific number of actors. We have an Equity minimum; for instance, eight of the fifteen actors in our upcoming production of RENT will be Equity, as well as both stage managers. The other seven will be working professionals who simply haven’t been offered a union contract yet, and trust me, they all deserve one.
    By the way, for your information, the verbiage with which we describe our company, which the local theater community seems to take so personally, comes directly from four focus groups led by a professional marketing company that specializes in audience development. It could not have been less personal. Some people had seen a Harbor Lights show, and some who hadn’t. Both our visual brand and our company language were derived expressly from these focus groups.
    Now, as to whether professional actors equals quality, I agree with Ms. O’Donnell — fully “professional” shows, with Equity actors and multi-million dollar price tags, crash and burn on Broadway every year, and having union performers in itself doesn’t guarantee that a show will be any good. It does, however, greatly improve the odds — these are, after all, people dedicated to earning a living as actors (and for the record, we have featured Broadway-credited actors in EVERY SINGLE ONE of our productions) — of creating a piece of “quality,” and it certainly does in our case, because we cast with agonizing precision and thoughtfulness, and we’re damn good at it. Which, of course, makes it all the more mind-boggling that so many local actors won’t audition for us, because they would and will always be given fair and measured consideration. In fact, again, as we tally the numbers of NYC and Staten Island actors that have worked for us, the number of locals slightly surpasses the number of non-locals. Yet, the grossly mistaken perception persists. How many ways can we say come out and audition? We want to cast as many locals as possible.
    As for other companies, the very idea that we are “in competition” with any other theater company on Staten Island is baseless. We have been successfully building an audience of theatergoers (as well as a spectacular education program for teens serious about the theater) that is seeking real quality and a moving experience, with no connection to who’s in the cast — independent people going to see theater for its own sake. And we’ve provided that quality in spades.
    It’s become clearer to me as I write this that what shocks me about Ms. O’Donnell’s comments are that they are so oddly personal. We haven’t insulted anyone; we never said that we have “all of a sudden, introduced culture” to Staten Island. We’ve never said anything remotely like that. What we have done, however, is significantly raise the bar. And we’re rightly proud of that. For five and a half years, despite gossip, defensiveness, and flat out obstruction, we’ve simply gone out in good faith and done landmark theater.
    That is all.

  7. Karen O'Donnell  August 27, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    And I apologize for saying competition….that was not my intention….I simply meant that they are a company of the same size and a company that fills the same size house at Snug Harbor. I do not want to make this into any kind of war between people or companies. I am the first to welcome all kinds of theatre to the Island. We need more and more theatre and art and music. There can never be enough! I am a member of the theatre community for over 40 years and I think anyone who knows me knows that I support it all and have worked in it all and in fact had my own company for eight years which was housed in The Center For the Arts at the College of Staten Island. I, in fact support Harbor Lights by attending their productions.
    I appreciate your clarifying your point that these were your words however this is not the first time that this statement has been made. I was in the audience the night of Harbor Light’s very first fundraiser and those words were spoken by Tamara and Jay. That they were bringing “culture” to Staten Island. There are many people I know who were there that night and it was a remark that has been discussed endlessly since then. It was also a remark made by them “in quotes” in an interview for a newspaper a number of years ago and I responded to that piece as well.
    I actually happen to like Jay and Tamara and this comment was not meant to hurt them or criticize their shows or their efforts at all…I simply hoped that they would see that Staten Island is a community that has a rich theatre history. The Staten Island Civic Theatre was a company that grew from small roots in a church hall to filling a 900 seat theatre at the old College of Staten Island and survived 25 years, Richmond Theatre Collection, Centerstage Productions, NeverLand Theatre, Genesis Productions all companies that produced terrific and costly productions and through the years have closed their doors but were viable contributors to the cultural community of Staten island. Staten Island Shakerspearan Theatre up and running for over 40 years, SeaView Playwrights Theatre still going after 40 years, Sundog Theatre running for over 10 years with a full education component placing teaching artists in schools throughout the NYC area, Staten Island Childrens’ Theatre Assoction, which has been educating children in theatre arts for over 25 years and can boast of many career successes for the graduates of their program. The Hemlock Theatre Company a brand new entity putting on interesting and original works in a lovely black box theatre space.
    Even saying that you’ve raised the bar can be insulting. Being equity doesn’t automatically raise the bar and that’s all I’m saying.
    I actually wrote the comment because I want Jay and Tamara to be successful. I simply think that the key to that success might be for them to know that there are some people in the community (not just me) who take exception to their way of wording their understandable enthusiasm for their company and it’s work. We are all proud of our work. And I thought if they knew how people on the Island feel then they might be a little more careful about the wording of those statements, and we can all live happily side by side creating quality entertainment for the Island.

  8. Karen O'Donnell  August 27, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Just one more thing to clarify. I am not an enemy of equity, I respect the union and anyone who manages to get their card. My granddaughter is a proud member of equity and a Broadway performer. But I have seen equity productions that have been so bad I’ve wanted to leave (“Pirate Queen” comes to mind) and there have been many more and I have seen community theatre productions with minimal sets and low budget everything that have mesmerized me and made me weep. We should be learning from each other, by seeing all that goes on on the Island, see other companies’ productions, see what they have, get ideas from them etc. We can’t all just sit around saying we’re the best. We all have to learn from each other and keep striving to be the best. We can’t get better if we already think we’re there!


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