Malik Yoba and Daphne Rubin-Vega
(Photo © Monique Carboni)
Malik Yoba and Daphne Rubin-Vega
(Photo © Monique Carboni)
Daphne Rubin-Vega first burst into most people's consciousness in 1996 with her searing portrayal of the dying but life-affirming Mimi Marquez in Rent, which earned her a Tony Award nomination, a Theatre World Award, and millions of lifelong fans. Over the past decade, she's worked consistently, earning a second Tony nomination for her role in Anna in the Tropics and giving first-rate performances in everything from The Rocky Horror Show to Fucking A. She also married her long-time beau, Tommy Contanzo, and gave birth to a son, Luca Ariel, in 2004.

But this year marks a whole new period in Rubin-Vega's life. On Monday, she begins the New Group's production of Seth Zvi-Rosenfeld's Everythings Turning into Beautiful in which she and Malik Yoba play a pair of almost 40-year-old struggling songwriters grappling with romance. In October, she takes on the role of Fantine in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables, and if all goes as planned, she'll take a short break from that show in January to star in the LAByrinth Theater Company's production of Jack Goes Boating opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz.

If all that wasn't enough, this week, Ghostlight Records released the CD of Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba, in which she co-starred earlier this year at Lincoln Center; and in October, Sh-K-Boom Records will release her first solo CD, Redemption Songs. Rubin-Vega and I recently shared some cool summer libations at the West Bank Café to discuss her various projects:

BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON: What attracted you to Everythings Turning into Beautiful?
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: The play is so simple on the one hand, but it's complicated to do. It's just Malik and I on that stage all the time, talking and singing and playing. I'm playing the guitar, and I'm messing around with little percussion things here and there. It's such a true and simple story about how we just get in our own way when it's least appropriate. How we play dirty with love and how common our neuroses are. I think everyone can identify with it.

BSL: One of your character Brenda's big issues is that her biological clock is ticking.
DR: I think Brenda feels that she has one egg left and that causes her to act in the wrong way. She thinks: "I was really doing the best that I could, considering my life and being true to my integrity as an artist, as a person in the world that wants to matter, and I find that I'm completely alone. But Brenda has a talent for being in the wrong relationship, picking guys where the dynamic is great when it comes to sex and fantasy, but in practical reality, he's hiding drugs in the bathroom.

BSL: The play was originally supposed to star Anabella Sciorra and Bobby Cannavale. How did you get the part after they had to withdraw?
DR: Seth and I have known each other for many years. I always thought that he was very talented and fun and articulate; he's a poet to me. So I always wanted to work with him, but never pushed anything. Then, I got a call saying that he wrote this play and there was strong interest in me reading it. It was a play with music, and I love plays with music. And the music, by Jimmie James, was really raw, like Tom Waits. You could feel the possibility in the songs and the play. Then, I met with the director, Carl Forsman, and we hit it off immediately. But when I got the offer, I was trying to line my proverbial ducks in a row, and negotiate my life, since I had some other offers and I have a baby to take care of, and I thought it might be too tough to do it. Then I got a call from Seth, who basically said that he was going to kick my ass if I didn't do it. And I believed him. I thought, if I don't do this play, I'm never going to sleep really well again.

BSL: When you signed on, was Malik attached?
DR: No, I thought it was going to be Scott Cohen, but then his TV pilot got picked up. When he couldn't do it, I did worry a little, because it's just two people and there has to be some chemistry. I read with some of the other guys, and one of them -- who will remain nameless -- was really hot. He was also practically off-book and he had made these strong, powerful choices. After he read the first scene, he kind of stretched out and you could see his belly hair. I turned around and looked at Seth and Carl, and I knew that he totally lost the part, because the character of Sam has to have a certain self-effacing humor, fragility, and vulnerability.

BSL: What do you think made Malik the right choice?
DR: I didn't actually read with Malik and I'd never met him before doing this. Physically, he was so different than I had been thinking. But he wowed everyone, because he's very, very talented and he has such a beautiful voice. Now, he's like my new best friend. Malik can do no wrong in my book.

BSL: Is Brenda somebody you're taking home with you?
DR: When I wasn't married and a mommy, I brought characters home, but I don't do that very much any more. Plus, I need time to let the coins drop if I've been working hard all day. But I do have to practice the guitar, to keep the chops going. And because of her neuroses, it's not that I take her home, she just pops out sometimes.

BSL: In Rent, you were playing an 18-year-old and now you're playing someone who's almost 40. How does that feel?
DR: Well, I guess somewhere in there I learned how to act. Really, that's one of the things that's so exciting about this play. Even in Bernarda Alba, I was probably playing someone who was about 24.

BSL: So how did Les Miserables come about?
DR: At the 10th Anniversary concert of Rent in April, I met the director, John Caird, through one of the show's producers. I had never really thought about playing this part. Fantine has been done so beautifully before. So what I'm thinking is "I'm not going into that putting curlicues on something that's been beautifully done, but I will own her and interpret her the way I want." Fantine is a person whose spirit has been absolutely decimated and crushed, and she resorts to prostitution in the war and dies with her heart broken. It's a lot of good stuff to work with, and getting to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" every night is very attractive to me.

BSL: Do you think the Rent fans will flock to see the show because of you, or do you think that they're going to feel that you've betrayed them by doing something so mainstream?
DR: There will probably be a little bit of both, but I hope nobody feels betrayed. If you don't want to go, don't go. I think people who like my work will like this show and I think it's an opportunity to sing before a bunch of different kind of people.

BSL: Now that you're a mother, would you prostitute yourself for your son?
DR: Yes. You'd do anything. I would take a bullet for this child. Whereas with my husband -- I love him more than anything -- I would only begrudgingly take that bullet for him.

BSL: Does it surprise you that you're a wife and mother? I think it surprises some of your fans.
DR: Recently, I turned around and thought, "How did this happen?" I remembered when I started dating Tommy about 10 years ago, people were gobsmacked. "You're going out with a suit and tie guy? Aren't you supposed to marry a rock star?" And I remember growing up thinking that I was going to marry a rock star. And then I realized somewhere along the line that that was never going to work for me -- that I wanted to be the rock star. We were together for a long time, but a couple of years ago, I actually did find that I wanted to get married. I wanted the ring, and I wanted the party. So we got married, and then, we had a kid.

Judy Blazer, Saundra Santiago, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sally Murphy, and Nikki R. James in Bernarda Alba
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Judy Blazer, Saundra Santiago, Daphne Rubin-Vega,
Sally Murphy, and Nikki R. James in Bernarda Alba
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
BSL: Tell me about why you're so committed to doing Jack Goes Boating.
DR: I love the play; it's another very sweet, very funny story about a couple who are kind of social misfits. It talks a lot about how relationships are tough. How do you get over the obstacle of infidelity? How do you keep it together? It's a project that we've been working on at LAByrinth for a couple of years, and I've been attached to it since the beginning of the development. I've never done an actual LAB production before and I've never worked with Phil before. When he won the Oscar for Capote, I was like, "Oh no! He's not going to do the play." But Phil is not like that. He gave his word, so how could I not give mine? In fact, I had to decide between doing Les Miz and High Fidelity, but when I told the people at High Fidelity that I would need time off to do this play, they said no. So I turned them down.

BSL: Now we get to hear you on two CDs: Bernarda Alba and Redemption Songs.
DR: I'm very excited about Bernarda Alba, it's so eerie and spooky. As for Redemption Songs, I wrote a lot of it while I was pregnant. I was thinking about "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley, which was appropriate for me at that part of my life. My life was changing. I was becoming a mother, and the movie version of Rent was coming out, and there was something about the fact that everybody else from the original cast was doing it and I couldn't that made me feel that gods were betraying me. So that was a really tough time, filled with a lot of mixed emotions, not to mention the requisite mood swings of pregnancy. And while I was very excited about being a mother, I was also thinking, "Oh my God! I didn't know how to do this. Help me out, belly." I remember talking to my belly. In the end, I'm very proud of this CD. I think that it reflects my growth as a singer, as a songwriter, and as a human being.

BSL: So what's next for you? Maybe a solo show?
DR: That is something I've wanted to do, and I've kind of peeked my little turtlehead out of its thing and written down some ideas. I have all these pieces of paper that will hopefully become a show with my band. I think it would be something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Elaine Stritch. Can't you just see that?