Devanand Janki is a New York-based director, choreographer, and educator who has worked in theatre, ballet, opera, film, and television. He is the founder and artistic director of Live & In Color, a theatre company whose mission is to develop new works that promote and celebrate diversity. Janki has directed and choreographed over 70 shows, earning multiple theatre awards and nominations. He has also performed as an actor in several Broadway shows and national tours. He taught for many years at the Stella Adler School of Acting, serving as an educator and then the director of the musical theatre division. He has been a guest artist and teacher in higher education and continues to conduct master classes and workshops around the world, focusing on diversity and inclusion in the arts.
Fourteen years after directing the first regional production of Rent, at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York, Janki has come to Ann Arbor as the guest director of the SMTD Department of Musical Theatre production of the iconic musical. In this interview, Janki describes his experiences directing Rent and working with U-M students.
You’ve had a multifaceted career, working as a performer, director, choreographer, and educator. What appeals to you about directing?
Directing for me is being able to put all the pieces together. I think my eclectic background has brought me to this. I love thinking about the big picture. I love working with all the departments, being able to talk to all different types of artists. As a director, you have to take on so many different roles. You’re a creator, a collaborator, a teacher, a parent, a police officer, a therapist. And just having to adjust to the people you’re collaborating with is always a fun, interesting, challenging exercise.
You directed the first regional production of Rent. How was that experience?
My good friend Peter Flynn at the time was the artistic director of the Hangar Theatre, and he is good friends with Jeffrey Seller, the original producer [of Rent], and they knew the show was closing, and [Peter] was the first person to get the rights after its Broadway run. Everyone wanted it, of course, but we were lucky enough to be the first. We got to do this really quite incredible production at the Hangar in a similar space as the Power Center, a three-quarter thrust, and we basically got to reinvent it in a new way.
I was always a Rent fan, but that was my first view into it as a director, and it was a really interesting journey. I loved the show, but l also realized how incomplete the piece was, just in terms of Jonathan Larson having never finished it before he died. So, I enjoyed being able to go in and connect the dots a little bit through physical storytelling.
We had an incredible cast. They were all young performers, and they all went on to incredible careers. I always say, I feel like I have very good taste in casting, and I think I have the golden touch in terms of people’s careers. So I feel the same way about these U-M young artists. I hope, having given them the gift of Rent, they have amazing careers.
How do you feel Rent has changed over the years for you, for audiences, and for performers?
It has changed a lot. First of all, when Michael [McElroy] called me, I was thrilled and excited. I immediately called my collaborator, the choreographer Robert Tatad, who did the Hangar Theatre production with me [and asked him to serve as choreographer for the U-M production]. I was super excited, also super nervous, because it’s Michael’s show, you know. Michael knows it better than anyone. I feel very honored, and also nervous about doing the show for him, because I want to do him proud. [McElroy, chair of musical theatre and Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Endowed Professor of Music, starred as Tom Collins in the Broadway production of Rent.]
But it’s been a really interesting experience all these years later, because especially through the students’ eyes, they are just so young, and they didn’t experience the AIDS crisis like Robert and myself and Michael did. So a lot of the dramaturgy has been them interviewing us about our experiences. At the Hangar, the show had just closed [the year before, in 2008], so we didn’t have the distance. But now it really is a part of history, and I don’t think a lot of people, specifically queer folk, really understand what happened, and how intense the trauma was for our community. It’s been very cathartic to talk about my own experiences with the cast, and to really relive them in a way.
I feel a great sense of responsibility. I’m very fortunate to have survived that era. But unfortunately many of my colleagues and friends didn’t, and there is an entire lost generation of artists. I feel it’s my duty to share and educate and tell the truth about that time, specifically through the lens of the musical theatre and theatre program. The arts were hit the hardest, you know, and it has really affected the trajectory of the arts. I mourn the fact that there are so few of us able to pass on such great information about the art form. [I told the students], there are so many great people that would be teaching you at this point if they hadn’t died. There would have been so much great art made by them.
… there is an entire lost generation of artists. I feel it’s my duty to share and educate and tell the truth about that time, specifically through the lens of the musical theatre and theatre program.
What are the key messages that students are taking from this show that haven’t changed since the Broadway opening?
I think it’s about chosen family, about community, and about living in the moment. I mean, it has the best song title and message: “No Day but Today.” That’s something I think we all have to keep learning, every generation. Stay in the moment. A quote I heard in yoga class recently has been resonating in my head: we need to reside in “the space between no longer and not yet.”
I really do feel like Rent is a classic now of the musical theatre canon. It exists as a period piece. It was really a reinvention of what the art form was. People still respond to it. I think young people especially can absolutely identify with the themes.
In what ways do you think Rent changed the trajectory for musicals?
I think it was the type of music, and I think it was the subject matter. For me, as a person of color, it was one of the few shows that I was like, Oh, it’s a story with everyone under the sun. Every color of the rainbow. It wasn’t about race, and that was one of the first that I thought, Wow! Anyone can play any role and it’s just about the talent. One of the mottoes of my company [Live & In Color] is, We create art that reflects the diversity of the world. And for me this is the perfect example. All those people on stage were what I experienced on the streets of New York. I think we still have a long way to go with that. But that piece was one of the first to do that in a contemporary, fun way, and also in a show that was a blockbuster – very much like Hamilton in terms of really giving more opportunities to more people.
How has the experience been working with U-M’s musical theatre students?
The whole department has been incredible. [When I first started working with the students,] I was like, Oh, this is why the University of Michigan is one of the best in the world. First of all, I do these production meetings that have so many people, and there’s so much support. No Broadway show has this much support, so it’s a little bit of a luxury.
And the students are fantastic. I mean, they’re crazy hard-working, despite having these long schedules. I get them at the end of the day when they’re just ragged from their studies and classes, and they’re still showing up and doing excellent work. The training is excellent. I work around the country with many students and young people, and it’s the cream of the crop here. And it’s a testament to the faculty and the teachers. It’s really, really impressive.
It’s been interesting – and I think we’re all dealing with this as educators – creating art with the shift in the world, with people just being more aware and trying to be more inclusive and trying to create safer environments. That has been a really fun exploration, because I think we’re all trying to figure it out together. I actually think this was the perfect show to do it with, because it’s provocative and thought-provoking.
There have been a lot of conversations about reclaiming language, specifically slurs. [Some terms now considered anti-gay slurs] are in the lyrics in the show. But that was a time of reclaiming those words. We had such empowerment in it, and that’s the reason it’s in the show. My perception of it at the time was, I own those words now.
[We’ve also talked a lot about how] the East Village was a place where people would go for safety. They found community, and there wasn’t the division. The [students had] a lot of questions about the lesbian community, the gay community, the Latino community… But at the time, there was no separation among them. We just had to come together because there was no other choice. If you were an outsider, it was a form of survival.