By Michelle Vellucci
Unlike Mimi, the hard-living, doomed party girl whose character she originated in “Rent,” Daphne Rubin-Vega values her sleep. It’s no wonder—the singer/actress, perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated performance in that show, has been plenty busy. Since leaving “Rent” in 1997, Rubin-Vega has cut two solo albums, logged screen time with De Niro and picked up a second Tony nomination for her role in Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” in 2004.
Currently starring as Fantine in the Broadway revival of “Les Misérables,” she’s also gearing up for a run in the LAByrinth Theater Company’s production of “Jack Goes Boating” in February alongside Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. And you can catch her Monday night at Joe’s Pub, where she’ll be performing music from her latest album, “Redemption Songs,” released on Sh-K-Boom Records last October.
Though she shows no sign of slowing down, Rubin-Vega says she’s approaching her career more cautiously now, particularly since the birth of her son, Luca Ariel, now 2. “Perhaps,” she said carefully, “I may be in the process of becoming much more discriminating. I just can’t afford to do anything and everything all the time.” And, she added, “I sleep whenever I get a chance.”
We caught up with Rubin-Vega recently during a rare quiet moment to chat about where she’s been and where she’s headed.
“I look around and see how difficult it is for fantastically gifted people to get a break and get heard,” she said. “I’d rate myself as extremely fortunate to have the opportunities that I’ve had, compared to where I came from and what I thought was available to me.”
Born in Panama, Rubin-Vega moved to Greenwich Village with her family as a child. A go-getter from the start, she was a mere teen when she approached producer Arif Mardin (who later produced the “Rent” soundtrack) at a vocal session for David Bowie and begged him to let her sing on the soundtrack to the 1986 film “Labyrinth.” Her bravado paid off, and eventually led to a gig with the girl group Pajama Party, with which Rubin-Vega recorded two albums before heading out on her own.
While attempting to launch a solo career, Rubin-Vega also became a member of the then brand-new LAByrinth Theater Company and performed at Caroline’s comedy club with a Latino troupe called El Barrio, USA. In the midst it all, she got the call to audition for the 1994 workshop of “Rent.”’ Jonathan Larson, the late writer/composer of the show, declared her Mimi “the real thing,” and the rest is history.
Rubin-Vega’s success in that role has spawned an avalanche of other successes, on Broadway and off—from her acclaimed performance as Canary Mary in Susan Lori Parks’ “Fucking A” at the Public Theater to her Tony-nominated turn as Conchita opposite Jimmy Smits in “Anna in the Tropics.” Recent projects have included Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of “Bernarda Alba” at Lincoln Center last winter, as well as the New Group’s production of Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s “Everything’s Turning Into Beautiful” in the summer.
It hasn’t all been a cakewalk. For instance, many critics have turned up their noses at her portrayal of Fantine, calling her voice “too contemporary” and comparing her unfavorably to predecessors such as Patti LuPone. “I think that people have very specific ideas about how Fantine should be done,” she said. “I can’t sing like anyone else. I can do no wrong in the context of Mimi and ‘Rent’ because I originated that role. I didn’t originate this role. And what I do is more different than what anyone else has done.”
Rubin-Vega will be leaving “Les Miz” Feb. 18 for the production of “Jack Goes Boating,” a move that will require her to do double duty for a while—rehearsing during the day and appearing on Broadway in the evenings. The play, she said, takes a look at the ways in which single people and couples struggle to negotiate their relationships. “There’s a lot of comedic misadventures,” she said. “It’s not too deep and self-important.”
Meanwhile, Rubin-Vega is maintaining her singing career. She likens “Redemption Songs,” a collection of pop, reggae, rock and Latin folk songs, to a series of “snapshots of parts of my life, which was around the time of being pregnant and having Luca.” Six weeks after Luca was born, she headed into the studio to record. It was an experience she wanted to tackle after her first failed attempt to release a record, with Mercury—a project that never came to fruition. “There’s an agenda on how to sell records, and build and mold artists,” she said. “I didn’t go into it blindly, but I had no idea it was so controlling and specific in its machinery. So this was my stab at making a record my way with music I wanted, and producing it the way I heard it. For better or worse, it was a great education.”
With so much going on, the busy performer hasn’t had time to take in much entertainment of her own lately, though she and her husband, Tommy Costanzo, took Luca to see his first movie—“Happy Feet”—recently. “I was crying because I haven’t been to one in so long,” she said. But it will probably be a while before she heads to the theater to see a play. “I have to admit that, as much as I love seeing plays and watching other people spread the magic, I’m so tired after a show that on my day off I just want to be with family.”