Sammy Ferber grew up listening to the soundtrack of “Rent,” his mother constantly playing it in the car as she maneuvered through the streets of suburban Chicago.
Flash forward a few years, and the Jewish actor finds himself literally living a lifelong dream, playing the Jewish character, Mark Cohen, in the hit musical’s 20th anniversary tour, currently in Pittsburgh. The show continues at Heinz Hall through Sunday, April 1.
“I always felt a connection to Mark,” said Ferber, speaking by phone prior to the Pittsburgh opening. “I identify with Mark’s Jewishness, and his awkwardness, the way he surrounds himself with the cool kids, so people will think he’s cool by association.”
The young actor also most definitely can relate to Mark’s relationship with his stereotypical Jewish mother.
“She is exactly what my mother is like,” laughed Ferber, adding that it was not a stretch for him to react on stage to Mark’s mother’s overbearing voicemails at the beginning of the show. When Ferber’s own mother saw the production, she told him, “You’re not even acting that part.”
In addition to being an actor, Ferber is a writer — one who has “genre-hopped” from poetry to songs to novels. He sees that type of artistic vacillation in the character of Mark, who as a filmmaker has tried his hand at various styles of cinema, but finally settles on documentary-making, which becomes the basis for “Rent” itself.
Ferber grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. He began longing for the stage at a young age, setting his sights on becoming an actor “right after wanting to be a firefighter and an astronaut.”
After graduating high school, Ferber enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Experimental Theatre Wing in 2014. It was there, while performing the role of Mark Cohen in a school production of “Rent,” that he caught the eye of the production team for the “Rent” tour.
It took many, many months, several call-backs — and an initial rejection, albeit a very polite one — before Ferber landed a spot in the touring company. In 2016, he got the phone call offering him the role of Gordon, and to understudy Mark.
“I fell to my knees,” he said.
Ferber didn’t hesitate in sharing the good news, immediately calling his mother, “because I’m a good Jewish boy.”
So, following sophomore year, Ferber found himself taking a leave of absence from Tisch and hitting the road with his first professional gig. A year later, he took over the role of Mark full time, and hasn’t looked back.
“Rent” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical for 1996.
Although the touring life is “not glamorous,” according to Ferber, he has gotten the chance to perform in some “great cities,” as well as some more remote small towns. He is happy to play in both types of locales, helping to spread the lessons inherent in the musical’s book and songs.
“With a show as important as this, with such an important message, I want as many people to see it as possible,” he said.
That message, he continued, is eloquently and simply expressed in the lyrics of one of the show’s breakaway hit songs, “Seasons of Love.” The song asks: “How do you measure a year?” and suggests the answer is to “measure in love.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.