Talent for Rent

UPDATED 07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

OFFSTAGE, DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA could be mistaken for just another struggling young actress. She still lives in a one-room Manhattan apartment, still sleeps on a pull-out couch and stores all her possessions in one tiny closet. But say the magic word, and her pet parakeets Cielo and Mar—Sky and Sea—give the game away. "Whenever they hear the word 'Tony,' " says Rubin-Vega, "they start singing and flying around the house."

They've been at it, says Rubin-Vega, ever since she was nominated for a Tony Award last month for her starring role in Rent—the acclaimed rock and roll Broadway musical inspired by Puccini's La Bohème—in which she plays Mimi, an HIV-positive junkie-dancer at an S&M club. Considering that her last job involved scrubbing floors as a sculptor's assistant, the turnaround has left the Panama-born performer dizzy. Since the Broadway opening on April 29, she has appeared on the cover of Newsweek and chummed with the likes of Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, who have been among her congratulatory visitors backstage. "It's been so fast," says Rubin-Vega, 27. "It's as if I just got my driver's license and my first car is a Lamborghini."

Not that she has any trouble keeping pace. "Daphne's smart and edgy," says Rent's director Michael Greif. "But she's really loving too, and I think all those qualities come through."

The edge developed early. The youngest of three children of Jose Mercedes Vega, a carpenter, who died when she was 2, and his wife, Daphne, a nurse, she moved to Manhattan seven years later when her mother, a dark-skinned Latina, married a Jewish writer, Leonard Rubin. One morning young Daphne woke to find the words "Nigger Lover" painted on an outside wall of the family's Greenwich Village home. "I was scared. My brothers were ready to kick ass," says Rubin-Vega. "But my mother said, 'Leave it there. Don't take it off.' One day soon after, I came home from school, and the mother of one of the kids in the neighborhood was standing over him, and that kid was taking it off himself. That told me a lot about my mom."

She had little time to learn more. Rubin-Vega's mother died when she was 10, and as a teen, Daphne rebelled. "My dad kicked me out of the house when I was a teenager," says Rubin-Vega. "I acted like I was grownup and lived full throttle when I wasn't capable of handling it." She began hanging out with musicians—tagging along with friends to recording sessions with David Bowie and Chaka Khan—and started writing her own songs as lead singer of the late-1980s girl-group Pajama Party. Earlier this year she topped the Billboard dance chart with her solo hit "I Found It."

Musical theater had never been high on Rubin-Vega's agenda, but she wasn't about to turn her back on a potential paycheck 19 months ago when her agent persuaded her to audition for writer Jonathan Larson's East Village workshop production of Rent. At the time she was getting by on occasional acting gigs and odd jobs. "I blared out 'Roxanne' by the Police, and when I was through, Jonathan said, 'There's our Mimi.' "

A year passed before Rent began rehearsals for its Off-Broadway run. Then a tragedy occurred. After the show's final dress rehearsal on Jan. 25, Larson, 35, collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm. "You don't even remember how you feel," she says now of hearing the news. "It was a dull, unreal thud in the back of my head."

That evening, as a stark tribute to Larson, the cast began their opening-night Off-Broadway performance seated, without makeup or costumes. But somehow it just didn't seem right. "I was thinking, 'Jonathan didn't write this for anyone to sit down and sing,' " says Rubin-Vega. So when the time came for her climactic solo "Out Tonight," she climbed up on a table and gave it all she had. "By the end of the first act, we were all jumping on those tables. So we put the second act on its feet, and it was electric, a really charged moment."

Rent has continued to set off sparks, winning a posthumous Pulitzer for Larson, and four Tonys. Though she plays a drug addict with a death sentence, Rubin-Vega says every performance is "life affirming. It's not about death. It's about living." Meanwhile, Rubin-Vega is learning a few things about living with fame. "I get free meals and clothes, and that never happened before," she says. "Celebrity is an interesting monster."

ANNE MARIE O'NEILL
ANNE LONGLEY in Manhattan

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