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Daphne Rubin-Vega
Redemption Songs

By Beth Herstein

Daphne Rubin-Vega appears at the door, her beautiful son Luca at her side. She gestures to me to come in out of the rain. "Hi, I'm Daphne," she says, holding out her hand. Her warm nature and lively spirit are instantly palpable.

We head to the spacious and beautiful loft where she lives with Luca and her husband of four years, Tommy Costanzo, who works in the real estate business ("He makes the money that allows us to remain solvent," she comments). She has opened a bottle of wine and pours us each a glass. Luca toddles off (he returns a lot to play with us, but neither one of us minds), and Rubin-Vega and I begin our interview.

Daphne Rubin-Vega has been a theater icon since she starred as Mimi in Rent, first at the New York Theater Workshop and then in a Tony-nominated run on Broadway. Since Rent, she's returned to Broadway twice - first for The Rocky Horror Show and then for Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize winner, Anna in the Tropics, which garnered her a second Tony nomination. She has also appeared Off-Broadway regularly, in shows including Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks, co-starring S. Epatha Merkerson and Mos Def; Michael John LaChiusa's adaptation of Bernarda Alba at Lincoln Center, starring Phylicia Rashad; and Drama Dept's concert staging of Free to Be You and Me.

This evening, we are discussing her second album, Redemption Songs, which has just been released by Sh-K-Boom Records. Even before Rent rocketed her to fame, Rubin-Vega - who was born in Panama City, Panama but raised in Manhattan - had gained a reputation locally as a singer and performer. She was a member of a popular New York girl group called Pajama Party, and after her run in Rent, she recorded her first solo album, Souvenirs, for Polygram Record's Mercury label. Before it was released, however, that record deal "went south" when the label itself went under. "Very typical story that doesn't bear repeating," she says. "There are an infinity of violins that could be played in this business."

Rubin-Vega didn't give up when her record deal fell through. Instead, she released Souvenirs on the Internet and promoted it locally through live performances with her band, DRV. "I found that if you build it, so to speak, the audience will come. I was still doing The Rocky Horror Show and [it gave me the luxury] to get a band and play out the songs that I had done on that first album. That generated the fan base and the crowds, until I had an audience that would indulge me in my new music."

She first began developing the concept for Redemption Songs over two years ago, when Anna and the Tropics was getting ready to close. When she became pregnant and knew she wouldn't be working on the stage for a while, she turned even more of her attention to her songwriting.

Writing songs for the album was therapeutic for Rubin-Vega, who'd endured a difficult few years. For one thing, she had lost her older brother, Edi, around that time; he died of an agressive form of leukemia when she was pregnant with Luca. "My family was feeling very protective over me," she says. "Not wanting me to find out and be devastated by yet the news ... They didn't want to tell me, to protect me." However, Rubin-Vega insisted on facing her brother's death head on. "When I was six months pregnant I went to Argentina and we spread his ashes in Cordoba, where he used to love to go to." Rubin-Vega pays homage to him and her other brother, Ariel, in the song "Angel Now" on the new album.

Another blow at that time was that she was not able to reprise her role as Mimi in the movie version of Rent. "Not that Rent was a minor detail, or a flea in the context of things," she comments, but it felt unimportant compared to her brother's death. "Sometimes, though, it's the more minute things that kick your butt. I mean, the death of my mother [years earlier] really rendered me incapable. But you have to find the resolve to keep going through the big ticket ass kicking." Not getting to play Mimi in the movie, on the other hand, "kicked my ass more than I thought it would ... Rent was something that I'd felt that I was unequivocally, eternally a part of. I was a mother of that in a big way, and there was no way that you could take that away from me. But there was a moment there that I felt, 'That's not true.'"

Though "it all sounds like sad stuff, and it was very difficult and painful," Rubin-Vega was bound not to let any of it defeat her. "If you don't crumble you live," she says. "If you don't get bitter you continue to live. My way of recycling that kind of pain - for better or for worse, it's usually the painful experience that thrusts me into creative expression. I'd love to write a joyful song and I've actually sung joyful songs, but if I'm having a good time, I'm [too] busy having a good time [to write about it]."

By the time she headed into the studio with her band to lay down the tracks, the tide had more than turned for her. Luca had been born in December 2004 - "10 fingers, 10 toes," she states, "and so full of love" - and by then he was around six weeks old. His name, Luca Ariel, means "lion of God," she explains. "Isn't that fantastic? Ariel is a Hebrew name for an angel, but it's also a very Latin name. Luca means 'light.' My first brother who passed away was named Ariel. And, my husband's grandmother's name was Lucia, his favorite grandma."

Her career was in full swing as well. She was in two movies released in 2005, Life on the Ledge and Alchemy; she appeared in both Bernarda Alba and The New Group's Everythings Turning into Beautiful Off-Broadway during 2006; and she was cast as Fantine in the upcoming Broadway revival of Les Misérables, which began previews October 24 in preparation for a November 9 opening. Finally, she will take a few months off from Les Misérables in early 2007 to co-star with fellow LAByrinth Theater Company members Philip Seymour Hoffman, Beth Cole and John Ortiz in Jack Goes Boating by Bob Glaudini. She describes the album as her "vanity project," something she gave herself permission to do after 10 years of hard work on her career, and her proven resilience.

Work on the album went well in the studio, though the songs were in various states of preparedness. "We had played 'Citizens of the World' out a lot before we recorded it, so I had a map of the journey of the song. 'Heartstrings' was [partly mapped out] and 'En Estos Dias' was really simple. But, songs like 'Luca Ariel,' were still mysteries. We had to negotiate it." She closes the album with the song "The Rainbow Connection" from Sesame Street - perhaps partly due to her new status as a mother, but also because she had performed "Quiet Time" for Sesame Street in 1996, for the video of the same name.

Looking back on Redemption Songs, Rubin-Vega sees an inevitability to its creation. "Sometimes when you need to say something enough, somebody needs to hear it ... If you desperately have to express, somebody will probably take advantage, in the best of ways, and can hear it ... I wasn't signed by a major label, I don't have a major label deal. I just thought, 'Look, I'm going to do what I need to do, which is to express myself this way.'"

Rubin-Vega briefly reminisces about the years that got her to this point. Early on, she says, Rent brought her "white hot attention. Only now can I see how wonderfully traumatized I was ... I mean, it was a wonderful experience. But, it fucked us up." Also, everything "came at the cost of the death of a beloved person," the show's author and composer, Jonathan Larson. "That was just sick." Throughout, however, those associated with Rent held onto "a real innocence, [an uncorrupted] desire to share this thing that we had with other people, because we loved it so much ... We were like ambassadors of this new theater thing, that was not adhering to the mores of old theater."

After Rent, Rubin-Vega remained selective in her choices and enthusiastic about her projects. She has worked with three contemporary Pulitzer Prize winners - Jonathan Larson, Suzan-Lori Parks and Nilo Cruz. "I'm very proud of that," she says. She also has high praise for her directors, like John Caird of Les Misérables ("I just love working with him," she says) and Anna in the Tropic's Emily Mann, whom she describes as "just a rocking woman. Intelligent, fantastic, powerful, confident, clear." And Michael Grief, who directed her in both Rent and Fucking A, "is one of my all time favorite people on the planet." She has made lifelong friends doing shows from Rent straight through to Bernarda Alba. I ask about Jimmy Smits, her co-star in Anna. "The best romantic lead, because he's so hot," she says, "and also a wonderful principled Latino man and actor ... the kind of person I could really trust, and trust his instincts."

For the most part, however, Rubin-Vega has her hands full enough without reminiscing. There's her husband and Luca - who, to her great joy, has re-prioritized her life. She is promoting the album and will be celebrating with a CD release concert at the Cutting Room at 7:30 pm on October 30. In addition, she is busy preparing for Les Misérables. The part has her meditating on themes like prostitution, because "Fantine, who is a really good girl, resorts to prostitution. And, I mean, I can relate, because being an entertainer is a very dignified form of prostitution."

She also can relate to Fantine's romanticism. "I mean, I'm a New Yorker," she says, with a mock swagger. "I think I know how to protect myself. I've grown up having a lot of those skills. But I am a terrible romantic. I believe that the innate badness in people will have its comeuppance. What goes around comes around. But, I also believe that good will prevail. And it usually does."

Redemption Songs - Daphne Rubin-Vega
(Ghostlight - new on CD)
Order at CD Universe | Download at iTunes
Album featuring original songs. "Mental Tenant," "Bumpy Ride," "Redemption Song," "Angel Now," "En Estos Dias," "Luca Ariel," "Artstrings," "Hold On," "The Rainbow Connection," "Citizens of the World."

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