Enter stage left: Broadway star Idina Menzel surprises Wilson ‘Rent’ cast


Photo courtesy of Karen Harris

Chloe Fatsis

One day at rehearsal, Karen Harris, the director of Wilson’s production of “Rent,” told the cast that they were going to be filmed for a documentary about the show  day.

“The people that were filming and talking to us were asking us, ‘Oh, who do you consider your role models?’” said senior Gabby Anifantis, who played Mimi, one of the leads of the musical. “All these people were answering, ‘Oh, Idina Menzel, Idina Menzel.’”

And guess who decided to show up to rehearsal that day: none other than Menzel herself, one of the stars of the original Broadway production of “Rent.”

While rehearsing the song “Seasons of Love,” Menzel, clad in a puffy black jacket and camouflage pants, casually strolled down the aisle of the Wilson auditorium. As soon as the students finished singing, they noticed her and started screaming. They covered their mouths with their hands, hugged each other, and jumped up and down.

“It was almost like a ripple of people slowly seeing her face and being like, ‘oh my gosh, is that really her?’” Anifantis said. “It’s definitely something that theater kids dream about but never think would actually happen.”

Menzel was performing a concert in DC on November 15 and found out that Wilson was putting on “Rent.” She got in touch with director Karen Harris to ask if she could come visit the cast. “She wasn’t sure people would recognize her, and I assured her that people in my cast would,” Harris said. Menzel is also famous for her roles in Wicked, a popular broadway musical, and the animated movie Frozen, in which she voiced the character of Elsa.

During her surprise visit, Menzel spent about 45 minutes talking with the cast. She spoke about her career, “Rent,” her lifestyle, and her inspirations, and also answered questions and gave advice to the cast.

They also discussed the relevance of the show’s message today. “Rent,” written by Jonathan Larson, tells the story of a group of friends living in New York City during the AIDS crisis. “She loved that high schools were doing this show,” Harris said. Menzel told the cast that Larson, who died in 1996, would be amazed that high schools are putting on “Rent,” which has themes surrounding loss, sexuality, and friendship.

The students then performed a couple of numbers for her. In addition to “Seasons of Love,” sophomore Nikki Keating and senior Julia Ravenscroft sang “Take Me or Leave Me.” “I couldn’t even process all the emotions I was feeling,” said Ravenscroft, who played Maureen, the same role that Menzel played.

The next day, Menzel sent the cast another gift: tickets to her concert that night. At the concert, Menzel gave the cast a shoutout: “I went and visited the Woodrow Wilson High School this week and they’re doing a production of ‘Rent’ at their school,” she said. “And they did some numbers for me yesterday and they were awesome and beautiful, so I want to thank them for coming.” Other members of the original cast also sent good-luck messages to the Wilson cast. Timothy Britten Parker wrote, “We wish you love and gratitude for moving Jonathan’s work forward.” Rodney Hicks said in a video, “Sending you love and joy on your production of ‘Rent.’” Both played supporting roles in the original cast.

“Every theater girl’s dream is to meet Idina Menzel,” Anifantis said. “It was just incredible and very surreal.”