New Jersey’s Javon King put his stamp on his role in “Rent”

Javon King photo by Michael Kushner
Javon King photo by Michael Kushner

“It is an honor and pleasure,” says “Angel” in the National tour of Rent

For New Jersey’s Javon King, inhabiting the role of “Angel Schunard” in the national tour of Rent is both a high honor as well as his opportunity to put his own unique stamp on a role. Rent knocked down its own walls during the initial run of this landmark musical. While this may be King’s national tour debut, his musical and theater roots run deep. From currently studying musical theater at Rider University, to working in shows such as Once On This Island to Newsies.

For an Out In Jersey magazine review of the National tour of Rent Click Here

I sat down with King as Rent rolled into Philadelphia. We talked about how it feels taking on such a legendary role, how the role has changed, and continues to change minds and hearts, and how another now legendary Broadway musical helped him step into the shoes, or “boots” as it were, of Angel.

What does it feel like to be taking on the role of “Angel” which is not just a legendary role, but truly the heart of the entire production of Rent?

Javon King in the National tour of "Rent"
Javon King in the National tour of “Rent”

Javon King: It is extremely humbling. I am still finishing school and I took a gap year to actually do the tour. It is so humbling and such an honor to get to participate in such an iconic show. Additionally, not just the show, but the part itself is so iconic. To represent the LGBTQ community across the country is an absolute pleasure and an honor, especially as a member of the community myself. It is absolutely amazing.

Rent: Live! got so much attention recently. What did you think of the entire production, which featured RuPaul’sDrag Race standout Valentina portraying Angel, which is the same role you portray? 

JK: I thought it was great! They took a different spin on it, as what we did is the original production from over 20 years ago. They took their own version and did what they wanted to do, in terms of live television and sets and things like that. I thought the new concept was really cool, and I loved it.

It’s almost fair to say that no matter what the setting, the music of Rent is so timeless it will almost always be a magical production. 

Javon King in the National tour of "Rent"
Javon King in the National tour of “Rent”

JK: Oh absolutely; I could see the show continuing to go on and on. When it came out originally, the music was so ahead of it’s time, and now it is starting to catch up with itself. Even now, I have people come up to me that are around my age or even younger, and they are falling in love with music that came out 20-plus years ago. It is such a testament to how timeless Jonathan’s work is, and how timeless it does continue to be.

Take me back for a moment; when did you realize that you knew musical theater was in your blood and would be the future path that you would take?

JK: Okay, this is a funny story, because I was definitely not your typical theater kid. I was an athlete growing up, and for most of my life up until I got to high school, football and track were my main sports. Then when I got to high school I got into my first musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I was in the ensemble and doing my thing and I loved it, and it was so much fun doing it with all of these people. I kept doing it throughout my high school years, not knowing that I would end up majoring in musical theater until junior year in high school. That is kind of late, as you are supposed to start the audition process for schools by then also, so I only got to audition for about six programs by then. I had figured out that it was what I wanted to do though, and that it was the path that I wanted to follow in life. It is working out for me!

What is it like inhabiting a character like “Angel” in Rent? For many people, Angel was the first time people saw a gay person portrayed on stage. 

Javon King in the National tour of "Rent"
Javon King in the National tour of “Rent”

JK: You know it is crazy how 20-plus years ago, people would look at a character like Angel and think “that’s not a real thing” and was just a character on stage. Now 20-plus years later, drag culture and the gay culture are such a “mainstream” thing now. I think that makes it easier now for people to relate to me, or maybe to the character also. People who come to the show are able to relate to Angel if they’re in the drag community or just a gay person in general, it is just nice to see that this musical is just timeless. People have come to love this character over the past 20-plus years, from someone that was almost not real to so many to now being an almost mainstream type character.

How has being part of such an iconic show like Rent, as well as inhabiting a character like Angel, changed and shaped your own world view and life in general? 

JK: I take this show and what I do in the show in my portrayal and try to definitely put it into my own life. There are so many things that are out of our control in this world, that happen both to other people and life in general. This show is a huge message of sending out love and living each day as if it is going to be your last no matter what your scenario is. That is something that I knew of, but it was not necessarily how I wanted to live my life; I was not going to live my life and plan everything. Now after doing the show, I see that there is so much that is out of our control that you really have to live every day like it is your last. You have to keep living every day sending out love to people who may not love you back, but sending them love in general is the best way to go about it. That is what we need in this world nowadays!

Angel is such an interesting role for a younger actor to take on, and people like Jai Rodriguez to the original portrayer Wilson Jermaine Heredia have truly taken on the role and made it their own. Did you get a chance to see anyone inhabit the role and you looked at them and thought “that is the kind of way I want to inhabit Angel”? 

JK: You know, I did not have access to the show beforehand. The 2008 recording that is on YouTube and the movie version of Rent are what I had seen previously. I had Wilson Cruz and Justin Johnston as the only two versions of Angel that I had seen. I thought, I could try to have a little of both Angels in my own performance, but for me, I was lucky enough to see Kinky Boots a few times beforehand. I looked at Lola and I looked at Angel and I realized that while they were not the same, they had a lot of similarities in terms of who they are and things like that. I tried to pull a little bit of Billy Porter’s Lola and a little bit of Wilson Cruz’s Angel into my performance, and also put myself into the character, as I relate to Angel on so many levels. I was essentially stepping into the character, and more of it is myself, than putting on other people. I just want to be authentic to myself, and be sure that what I am doing on stage is what is making me happy all eight days a week.

Speaking of Kinky Boots, you also tried out for that show correct? 

JK: I did! Actually the only reason I have this job is because I was in final callbacks for Kinky Boots. I was up for the understudy Lola and one of the Angels in the ensemble. The same casting people suggested that I come out for Rent and I thought that was awesome, and the rest is history. If It was not for Kinky Boots, I would not be doing what I am doing right now.

What do you think the message from this show is from 20 years ago, that we can apply to in today’s world? 

JK: I think the show speaks volumes. There are things that the show addresses like drug abuse and the AIDS epidemic, and all of those things that are still very prevalent today. 23-years ago, people did not want to talk about it, and they are still topics that people are still a little touchy on today. This show forces you to have those conversations with people in your lives and people you may know. It is a story of continuing to open up that conversation and have that open dialogue with issues that they are having. At the same time, you are sending them all the love that you possibly can and are encouraging them to live they best and authentic life.

That is what the show represents: being who you are, unapologetically, and living your life to its fullest capabilities and not letting things get to you.