Daphne Rubin-Vega solidified herself as musical theater royalty from the moment she made her Broadway debut.
The year was 1996 and the Panama City native was cast as a teenage, HIV-positive exotic dancer and drug addict in a new musical called Rent. As Mimi Marquez, Rubin-Vega came out swinging with her first solo, “Out Tonight,” and hasn’t stopped since. Most recently, the two-time Tony Award nominee starred in the premiere of the acclaimed new musical, Miss You Like Hell.
Now available from Ghostlight Records, the Miss You Like Hell original cast recording immortalizes the debut production that ran at The Public in New York this past spring. With music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, Miss You Like Hell tells the story of a teenage girl who embarks on a cross-country road trip with her mom, Beatriz, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
As the flawed Beatriz, Daphne Rubin-Vega delivered a passionate and unforgettable performance. Now preserved on the musical’s cast recording, Rubin-Vega’s interpretation of her character is as urgent as it is powerful. She spoke with me about Miss You Like Hell and exploring what Americana means to different people, reflected on Rent, teased what she’s working on next and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: In these terrifying political times that we are living in, why do you think these characters and their stories are so important to tell?
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: Because they’re just simple stories about human beings! It’s not a politicized story, it’s a human story. The times have politicized and objectified immigrants to distort our perceptions. But Miss You Like Hell is a pallet of songs that tell a story of a specific journey. In that story, stuff happens that deals with immigration so the flower of politics starts to bud – but the story in itself is not political. There are beautiful songs that you can actually relate to, no matter how old you are. Even my kid, who is at that age where nothing I do is cool, refers to these songs when it comes to actually discussing relationships and how to articulate what feels like teenage madness.
So I don’t know if I’ve answered your question or not, but to me the show just addresses humanity. And that humanity happens to be Mexican and half Mexican respectively. That makes me very happy.
When Beatriz and Olivia embark on their road trip, it’s the first time they’re spending time together after years of being estranged. The journey they then travel together is just as emotional as it is sprawling. What does the narrative tool of having their reunion come in the form of a road trip add to the complicated dynamics of their relationship?
It’s pretty epic! It’s everything from The Odyssey to Jack Kerouac to all kinds of stuff in between. The road trip allows us to illustrate other human beings, meet people and take advantage of the kindness of strangers, literally and narratively.
There’s something very beautiful, broad and complicated about this particular stretch of land mass that we call the United States of America. I think (book writer) Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown really wanted to wrap their whole bodies, minds, hearts and spirits around what Americana is to people today. In particular, to people who might look like me.
As a performer, how do Erin McKeown’s music and lyrics differ from other musicals you’ve done?
Erin and Quiara are poets. This is Erin’s first musical. She comes from a world where she tells stories. I don’t usually use the word “folk” because I don’t think of myself as referring to folk music. But Erin comes from the world of folk music in the sense of people telling stories about their lives. She’s a minstrel. I compare her to Ani Difranco because she’s such a fierce bad ass female and has a very individual voice and people know who she is when she sings. Someone like Joan Jett. But Joan Jett is full of rock and roll and Erin has elements of Joni Mitchell in her. Actually, she has elements of a whole bunch of references I can’t even really be clear about because they’re new to me as well. It’s really exciting to work with two poets and one amazing musician that knows how to harness other amazing musicians.
Miss You Like Hell has been frequently compared to Tony-winner The Band’s Visit for both its poignant subject matter and intimate presentation. What are your thoughts on these comparisons and how else might you describe the show?
You know, it’s hard to describe something that you’re in. The audience was surrounding us. It was not theater in the round, but theater sort of in the three-quarter and it was a blue stage with birds. It was like being inside of a Matisse painting. It was very abstract expressionist that way.
It was a series of stories and little chapters of our lives that led up to the songs and narrative where we encountered people who sat as silent witnesses of our experiences. It was done very minimally. We picked up, put down stools and pretended that they were cars. We moved props around. I think we encouraged people to use their imaginations to be in the scene. I don’t know if that describes it adequately. The colors were very vibrant. I was there so busy trying to be in the world that it’s hard to step out of it and actually describe it all of these months later.
Now that Miss You Like Hell has wrapped up its run at The Public in New York, what are some of your fondest memories of performing the show each night?
Theater is a mind-altering drug/technology. It totally shakes my spirit when I get to stand up and look out and see black, but feel complete and total engagement with an audience. I don’t just mean because an audience sees and hears you with their eyes and ears. There’s a level of soul listening that occurs. That’s why I do it.
I remember thinking, “if I have something to say badly enough, somebody’s going to need to hear it.” That was my takeaway with Miss You Like Hell. Those who heard it loudest were too busy listening to speak back or comment. They gave back with their hearts enthusiastically. That was extremely gratifying.
But it was painful too because of some of the ways that people would respond. I have to tell you this story – we had an audience of the children of farmworkers from the tristate area and thereabouts. They came to see the show and one kid was talking about how the song “Tamales” was so evocative for him in a way that he even had trouble articulating to me. That song was so difficult for him to hear because his mother used to make tamales until his big brother was killed. Because tamales were his brother’s favorite food, his mother doesn’t make them anymore. Whenever she tries now, he can see on her face that it isn’t the same. It was just these kind of simple, yet innocently profound soul stories that would come out when people listened to this music.
And it wasn’t just kids of farmworkers. It was Jewish moms! So many mothers would come up to me and say, “You’re just like my mother” and I’d be like, “Yes I am your mother.” You know what I mean? It didn’t matter if they were black, white, brown, blue or pink.
I love what I do. When I get to be on stage and mean what I say from the core of my being, it’s the biggest blessing and privilege.
What are the future plans for the show? Will there be a Broadway transfer? Do you plan on staying involved with the production as it continues to evolve?
I’m sure I’ll probably dip my toe in some capacity going forward. There are definitely other iterations starting up, like one that’s coming to Boston. I always felt, even from the beginning of its birth, that Miss You Like Hell would probably have a bigger life going forward. I think it will live on with other people. Its biggest life has yet to be seen.
Last week, you and the cast performed a special concert at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of the cast recording. Proceeds from this event benefited Madre, an organization helping migrant families. How did you and the cast discover Madre and what about their mission resonates the most with you?
I’ve known Madre for as long as I’ve been a madre! My sister-in-law has worked with Madre for decades. She introduced me to them a long time ago when I wanted to do service and the first thing was donating. It was a lot of donating of gently used things like sports equipment and books. Then came materials like saline solution and Tampax. There’s a lot stuff needed that we wouldn’t even consider!
There was a time that Madre was in peril of losing its status so I’m happy that we’re helping them out. I live in Chelsea (Manhattan) and Madre’s headquarters were practically across the street. I’ve been going over there with bags of stuff for quite a while now. In fact, I had to stop doing that because it was getting out of hand. My kid was like, “Mom, where’s my hoodie?” and I’d be like, “Someone less fortunate is wearing it in Nicaragua. You need to shut up!”
There have been an increased number of conversations about diversity in theater over the past couple of years. Being originally from Panama, how has being an actor of color impacted your career? Have you noticed any significant efforts to improve the inclusion ratio since your stage debut?
Yes and yes, absolutely. Inclusion and diversity are very bright topics right now. That tends to get messy because everyone’s like, “Well what about me? What about me?” “Well, I’m not talking about you.” “Well I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about me and people who are like me,” and so that can be a bit distressing because I feel like before there’s a “them,” there’s an “us.” So the inclusion hopefully will get to a point where we won’t have to have this conversation and it has nothing to do with doing the politically correct thing, but to do what’s right for a project and give everybody an opportunity. Until we get to that point, we have to be messy and sometimes hire people that we really don’t want to hire. That’s a fact. So that’s tough and exciting to see.
In my experience, I palpably remember being told that I shouldn’t be an actor because I don’t look like an actor. To which today, there’s a very simple answer. It’s like, “Well that’s because there’s not a whole lot of actors you see that look like me! That doesn’t mean they don’t exist!”
My dad was a Bronx born Jew who went to Ivy League school. He really felt he could tell me with great authority that the playing field is not level and that I had to do better and try harder. Now that I’m older, I’m like, “Oh damn, papa. I know what you mean!”
We’re not too far from the 25thanniversary of Rent. Looking back nearly a quarter of a century later, how would you say being part of the original cast of one of the most beloved musicals of all time has shaped you both personally and professionally?
I wear the mantle like a schmatta. It gives me enormous pleasure to see work that is out there now and know that it’s been informed by Jonathan Larson’s work. To see the Pasek and Pauls, the Lin-Manuel Mirandas, the Tom Kitts and the on and on that have benefited from being inspired one way or the other by Jonathan’s work or Rent directly. That gives me the feeling that I belong to a very special mob that helped shape that. Not a day passes by that I don’t think of Rent or see or hear from someone. It gives me great pride.
In January, Fox will be airing Rent as their next live television musical production. What are you hoping to see from this production? And since casting hasn’t been announced yet, who are some people you would like to see take on the role of Mimi?
Oh wow. That’s loaded and I’m not gonna go even near that one! The fact that Rent is being aired live on Fox blows my mind. I’m speechless. It’s not that I didn’t see that coming. It’s like in a world where this shit is happening, Fox lies! Like are they going to have AIDS or diabetes? I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
I’m really thrilled that this is happening. I’m sure that whomever they pick, they’ll have made their decisions based on their best political strategies. I hope that they do it with their hearts, too. But I have no idea who they’re gonna pick to play Mimi.
You’ve got two solo albums under your belt. Do you plan to release any more solo recordings?
Yes, actually I do! I’ve been working on a project for years now. It’s a series of autobiographical stories and songs interwoven with frequently unanswered questions. I’m gonna start putting that out there very soon. It might start with just the stories, but it’ll definitely morph into songs.
You were a recurring guest star on the cult-favorite TV show, Smash. What were the biggest highlights of working on that series? And are you surprised by how fervent its fan base remains years after its cancelation?
Yeah, that makes me happy! We had a lot of good times. I mean Anjelica Huston, what a great girlfriend to have. I love Anjelica Huston – her sense of humor, her flare.
One day I showed up on set and everyone had that face of doom. It was like, “Okay what’s going on?” You’d hear the walkie talkies blare from everyone’s shoulders and it was like, “What’s going on?” Apparently it was the day that we were shooting with Liza, but she wasn’t gonna show up. It was an early call and people who were like, “Come on! You all should know better than to try to get Liza Minnelli in the room before X o’clock!” Everyone was standing around waiting. There’s a lot of gossip about how much fun we had behind the scenes.
Where can your fans catch you next?
On Wednesday, Gimlet Media released the (scripted podcast) The Horror of Dolores Roach starring me, Bobby Cannavale and Margaret Cho. It’s a really amazing cast. I’m really proud of that. It’s a horror story based on Sweeney Todd.
I’m also working on Tales of the City based on the stories of Armistead Maupin. It’s a Netflix series starring Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Ellen Page. Laura and Olympia are reprising their roles from the 1990’s Tales of the City miniseries. This is a continuation of that story. I am playing the mother of a transgender son, born female. It’s the story of these people’s lives. His mom is really supportive of her son … but it’s for all these strange reasons, like, “He’s the son I never had!”
I’m also working on a new web series called Tuesday Nights that’s being produced by Shiva Kalaiselvan. It’s very, very interesting. It’s a story about a woman who’s going through the end of her relationship and coming into her life after a divorce. It’s six episodes. In my episode, I’m signing the divorce papers and toasting to my freedom. But in each episode, the main character is played by a different woman. So it’s basically one woman’s story but played by six very diversely different females from all walks of life. The point of it is to illustrate how a common thread of experience looks on different bodies.
As far as my music, I’m working on the next thing. I’ll let you know when I’m ready. Overall, I’m working on a bunch of projects that make me really happy.
That’s kind of the dream, right?
Well, it actually connects to being an actor of color or of the ethnic persuasion. I’ve been asked, “How do you take all these juicy roles that are so politically charged somehow?” This was five or seven years ago and it was a big revelation. I realized that when I inhabit a role, suddenly it feels like it’s become political – especially if it’s on a Broadway stage. It becomes very politically charged because someone like me is in it. I don’t know if that’s personal. Yeah, I have very strong views, but I think it’s just because of the way I look or behave myself. But I’m just being me!
What are some bucket list roles you’d love to play some day?
They are in the process of being written as I speak! One is sort of a shorthand Mata Hari of the western world. She’s what Mata Hari would look like today after a long struggle with the resistance. That’s one musical theater project that I’m working on, which I’m very excited about it. I’m working with Aaron Mark, who also wrote Empanada Loca and The Horror of Dolores Roach. We’re working together on a bunch of projects and that’s one of them. Good sleuthing!
CLICK HERE to purchase the Miss You Like Hell original cast recording from Ghostlight Records, available now digitally and physically on November 16.