When Jonathan Larson’s Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, Vanessa Hudgens was just an eight-year-old self-described “musical theatre nerd,” still a decade away from her breakout role as Gabriella Montez in the first of three High School Musical films she would star in.
Back then, she was obsessed with West Side Story and soon started performing in local productions of shows like Carousel, The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, and The Music Man. Even at that age, Hudgens dreamt of a life on Broadway. “A friend of mine was helping my mom pack up her house and came across a journal of mine recently and in it, right there in black and white, were the words, ‘I want to be on Broadway,’” she says.
High School Musical was the first major step in helping Hudgens fulfill that dream, although at the time, she didn’t realize just how big a phenomenon the Disney movie would become.
“For me, I was a kid running around singing and dancing, having a great time. What came afterwards was a whirlwind, but it’s something I will always hold on to and cherish and the fact that I got to be a part of something that was introducing musicals to kids, I reached my life mission,” she says. “That happened to me when I watched West Side Story; that was the catalyst to my obsessions with musicals and theatre. Now, I was helping to introduce a new generation to musicals who didn’t have the ability to watch the classics as I did, and it’s really neat that it’s almost becoming a classic itself.”
In 2005, a film version of Rent hit movie theatres, and by then, the original Broadway soundtrack had gone platinum, with more than 1.2 million copies sold. Yet, Hudgens knew very little about the show and was only introduced to it in 2010 after receiving a call from Neil Patrick Harris, who hoped to cast her in a production he was directing at the Hollywood Bowl.
“He had me come in and read for Mimi, and I ended up going along for the journey,” she says. “My introduction to the show really was from doing it, and it was such a blast.”
Hudgens finally achieved her Broadway aspiration in 2015 when she starred as the title role in a revival of Gigi. “It was such a surreal experience. It was everything I could have hoped for and so much more,” she says. “The thrill of being on a Broadway stage and thinking about all the other thespians who graced the stage before me and have sat in the wings waiting to go on... It’s historical, and I love historical things, and the energy is still there in those theatres.”
The actor experience a new type of live performance energy taking on Rizzo in Grease: Live in 2016, a turn even more impressive given that her father had passed away from cancer the day before the live special aired. Last year, she delivered another knock-out performance in the role of Vanessa in the week-long production of In the Heights as part of the Kennedy Center’s new Broadway Center Stage Series.
Her introduction to the big stage and her live television musical experience collided earlier this year when Hudgens was asked to revisit the world of Bohemian Alphabet City, this time playing Maureen in Fox’s upcoming Rent on Fox, which airs live on January 27.
A role forever associated with Idina Menzel, who originated the character at New York Theatre Workshop and on Broadway and returned for the 2005 film version, theatre vets such as Eden Espinosa, Karen Olivo, and Haven Burton have all taken their turn in the role; and, of course, Hudgens starred alongside Nicole Scherzinger who played the part at the Hollywood Bowl.
“When I did it, I remember being so blown away by Nicole’s performance and loved the character, and I said to myself, ‘One day, that would be an amazing part to play,’” she says. “I was not at a place of confidence in myself to do it at that time, but it feels very fitting that eight years later, I feel strong enough to play the part.”
Since being cast, Hudgens hasn’t gone back to watch the movie or any of the live recorded performances, and she hasn’t listened to how Menzel sang the role, wanting to start from scratch as she prepares to bring her version of Maureen to life.
“Jonathan Larson’s whole thing was about finding his true, authentic voice as an artist, and that inspires me so much, so I’ve been trying to take the same approach in finding who Maureen is to me and making sure that is true,” Hudgens says. “She is a drama queen, loud and proud and loves being the center of attention. And she is outspoken and unapologetic for it. I grew up doing musical theatre and part of the reason I loved it was, of course, the shows and the music, but it was really about being on the stage and being the center of attention. We fit hand-in-hand nicely.”
Originally written over 20 years ago, Hudgens knows younger generations will still relate to its strong messages.
“The topics that Rent dives into are still extremely relevant topics that deserve discussion. Gentrification is still a very relevant thing, people are still struggling with AIDS, and the main topics—poverty, social class, sexuality, gender identification—they are all things we are still talking about, so to have it in the context of a musical and explored in that medium is really an exciting thing,” she says. “Audiences will be really inspired and hopefully afterwards, feel more compassionate towards other people who may not be like them.”
The cast, which also includes Tony-nominated performer Brandon Victor Dixon (as Tom Collins), Tinashe (as Mimi), Jordan Fisher (as Mark), Brennin Hunt (as Roger), Valentina (as Angel), Mario (as Benny), and Kiersey Clemons (as Joanne), have spent a lot of time together the past couple of months getting ready for January 27, and the bond is one that rivals the Life Cafe gang from the musical.
“We all love each other. I know Valentina is getting to the point where she just wants to do this for months and months,” Hudgens says.
Time is something the actress doesn’t take for granted, and she’s been plenty busy the last couple of years. In addition to her stage work, the past year alone she’s starred in the popular Netflix Christmas special, The Princess Switch, can currently be seen in cinemas opposite Jennifer Lopez in Second Act, and has a new movie on Netflix later this month called Polar. Once she takes her bow for Rent, Hudgens will be racing off to Atlanta to star alongside Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys For Life, the highly-anticipated sequel to Bad Boys.
Still, she’s focused on the now, understanding that Rent will be a lightning-fast experience where, after so much preparation and rehearsal, she gets one shot. But even a single show is worth it to the actor. “I just jump at the opportunity to do a good musical,” she says, “whether it’s six months or six weeks.”