When Everett native Paul O’Keefe first saw “Rent” on stage more than two decades ago, he was absolutely floored by Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking production.
“I was just blown away,” the veteran performer tells Metro. “To me, it was like a tornado of fresh air in theater.”
Little did O’Keefe know that he would soon join the show about a year into its run on Broadway, invited to become a sub-musician by his friend Tim Weil, the musical supervisor of “Rent.” Of course, O’Keefe jumped at the opportunity, although he was somewhat nervous about the gig, which required playing multiple instruments.
“It was kind of daunting,” says O’Keefe. “The first few performances I managed to do OK and not screw anything up, but it was a real stretch for me artistically. I was really pleased when things settled down and I was accepted and approved by everybody.”
These days, O’Keefe serves as the assistant musical director for the show’s 20th anniversary tour, which stops at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre Oct. 29 through Nov. 10. Coming back to the Boston area means a lot to O’Keefe, as it’s where his journey in the arts began.
Long before he joined the “Rent” family, O’Keefe was a child performer in the Bay State who studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music and worked on shows like “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Carousel Theater in Framingham. Performing seemed to be in his family’s blood, as his sister was also involved with the world of theater. O’Keefe is also the cousin of “Grey’s Anatomy” star and fellow Everett native Ellen Pompeo, although he has yet to meet her in person.
O’Keefe’s first big break was scoring the role of Winthrop Paroo in the “The Music Man” on Broadway at the age of 7, which prompted a move to New York City with his mother and sister, while his father continued working as the alderman-at-large in Everett. O’Keefe eventually earned the role of Ross Lane in “The Patty Duke Show,” which starred Oscar winner Patty Duke in the title role.
While the world has changed a lot since ‘60s sitcoms dominated the airwaves, O’Keefe believes that the continued theme of family is what stands out to him the most about “Rent.”
“One of the things I think is more useful and important at this time is the notion of family,” O’Keefe says. “The show has always had that theme and is one of the things that I think keeps the show relevant.”
Although “Rent” tackles a number of societal issues that are still important today, O’Keefe believes that its portrayal of a non-traditional family environment is what makes the show so relatable to countless people across the globe.
“The idea this isn’t mommy, daddy and 2.5 kids, but it’s still a family,” O’Keefe says. “It’s a very good, positive expression of that and I think is very accessible to a lot of people.”