When Kaleb Wells was a child, car rides were often accompanied by the “Rent” soundtrack.
So, too, were Christmas festivities at home, since that’s when much of the Broadway musical takes place.
When the movie adaptation came out in 2005, Wells and his family saw it in theaters, and when a national touring production of “Rent” came through his hometown, he and his mom were in the audience.
It was while seeing the musical performed live that the story really began to take shape for Wells.
“A lot of the story elements I didn’t really understand because I was a kid, and also I was just listening to it so I had some ideas about what it was and what it was about but to see these people come to life onstage was really unique and wonderful,” he said. “A ‘Rent’ crowd is such a powerful thing, such a moving experience, so to be in the middle of that was really, really awesome.”
Since 2016, Wells has relived that experience, albeit from the other side of the stage, night after night as he plays the role of Roger Davis in the 20th anniversary national tour of “Rent,” which opens Thursday at INB Performing Arts Center.
“Rent” follows a year in the lives of a group of young artists trying to make it in New York City’s East Village while dealing with everything life throws at them.
Creator Jonathan Larson loosely based the musical on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.” The musical won the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama after it premiered in 1996.
Wells auditioned for the role of Roger, a struggling musician, after returning from performing in “Rock of Ages” on a cruise ship.
About two weeks later, he found out he got the job, though he had to work odd jobs through “a whole summer of purgatory” before rehearsals began that August.
Instead of being asked to recreate Adam Pascal’s Tony-nominated portrayal of Roger from the original run on Broadway, Wells said he was encouraged to make the role his own.
“It’ll never be fully honest, and you’ll never tell the story truthfully if you try to recreate something,” he said. “We were really, really pressured to, especially with 20 years later, having a more modern perspective on the piece, to be able to make it our own and tell the story in our own way and see these characters in a new light.”
“Rent” also stars Aaron Alcaraz as Angel Dumott Schunard, Jasmine Easler as Joanne Jefferson, Sammy Ferber as Mark Cohen, Aaron Harrington as Tom Collins, Marcus John as Benny Coffin III, Lyndie Moe as Maureen Johnson and Skyler Volpe as Mimi Márquez.
While the characters in “La Bohème” find themselves dealing with a prevalence of tuberculosis in the Latin Quarter of 1840s Paris, many of the characters in “Rent,” including Roger, are living with HIV/AIDS.
Putting himself in that position and figuring out how to portray such a weighty issue honestly, without “play-acting,” proved to be the most difficult part of taking on the role of Roger.
“Nobody wants to deal with their own mortality, nobody really wants to question these things and struggle to find who they are and what they mean in the world when you’re staring down the muzzle of the gun that is this horrible disease,” Wells said.
Now in his second year with “Rent,” Wells has become more comfortable with the role, though with new cast members and new energy, the show is always changing.
His relationship with the show changes too from show to show. When asked if he had a favorite song to sing, Wells couldn’t pinpoint just one.
“Sometimes you’ll find something in a song and you’ll be like ‘Oh, I never realized that’ and you’ll discover it in the moment,” he said. “Then another time, you’ll have that same moment with another song, so it’s really impossible to say.”
“Rent” closed on Broadway in 2008 after 12 years and 5,123 performances. It has been performed around the country and internationally, and an abridged version of the rock opera was made available for school productions beginning in 2007.
Having grown up with the show, and now performing in it himself, Wells thinks “Rent’s” longevity stems from the positivity the characters show despite the challenges they face, something Wells said will always be a good reminder.
“We need to see a message of love and a message of hope and a message of working together to create art and beauty and not get wallowed down by the animosity and hate that exists in the world and the fear of death and the fear of losing everything,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, the only thing that we have, the only thing that makes life worth living is love and friendship, and I think that’s something that human beings will never stop needing to be reminded of.”