When “Rent” opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn on June 7, it will mark Zachary Noah Piser’s debut at the Tony-Award-winning theater. It is only the latest first for the young thespian in a relatively brief but comparatively meteoric career.
The press release for the production describes Mr. Piser, who is playing the Jewish narrator of the musical, the struggling documentarian Mark Cohen, as “a Hapa Jewish actor.”
Yes, I had to look that up. Hapa is an Hawaiian word denoting a multiracial person. On the mainland, though, it has come to connote someone of partial Asian or Pacific Island descent.
Mr. Piser refers to himself a little differently, however, as he explained in a Zoom interview:
“I’m half Chinese and half American,” he said. “Half white. My mom is an immigrant. My father a Jewish boy from Indiana. I am fully Jewish because my mother converted to Judaism before she had me. So I like to call myself a Jasian.”
Among this Jasian’s firsts: he was the first AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) to play the title role in “Dear Evan Hansen” and almost certainly the first in his theater class (Northwestern, 2015) to land a job on Broadway. “I was one of those very, very fortunate people,” he said. “I came to New York in September or October [of 2015] and I joined the Broadway production of ‘Wicked’ a couple of months later.
“I was in ‘Wicked’ for about two years as Boq — and that was like fresh out of college. I literally to this day think they made a mistake in casting and called the wrong actor. But I’m so grateful they did because” — and he genuinely sounds amazed here — “I mean I was just out of school.”
There was a Plan B: He was a double major, theater and biology. “I’d set an arbitrary benchmark. If I haven’t achieved my version of success — or got near that mark — by the time I was 25, I’d rethink my life.”
He needn’t have worried. After “Wicked” there was “Dear Evan Hansen,” a much-lauded off-Broadway production of” Sweeny Todd,” road shows, and last fall, back on Broadway, “K-POP.” The last did not go well, closing after only 17 regular performances.
Mr. Piser attributes the early closing to the lingering impact of covid. “Around that time, the Omicron variety was still around,” he said. “There was another wave just around the time we opened.” Broadway is expensive and he feels a lot of families opted for surefire shows they knew, “The Lion King,” for example.
Still, Mr. Piser manages a positive spin on the events: “Just the fact that I happened at all was amazing. Except for one person, it was an all-Asian company. It featured 18 Broadway debuts, and it was the first time that Korean culture was up there. And it was the first time the character I played was specifically Hapa. So the show had a lot of meaning and resonance for me.”
It’s the same with this production of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s adaptation of “La Bohème,” which follows a year in the life of a group of struggling artists and musicians on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the height of the AIDs epidemic.
“It makes so much sense doing a show like ‘Rent,’ which is all about growing up and finding out who you are amidst, you know, an epidemic,” Mr. Piser said.
Zachary Noah Piser grew up in California’s Bay Area. His mother immigrated from mainland China via Taiwan as a child and grew up on Long Island. His dad, Joel, grew up a Conservative Jew, though Zachary’s grandfather was raised Orthodox. His mom, Jing, was expected to convert, and that wasn’t a problem for her, since she basically was an atheist. But that changed during the conversion process.
“My mom really found that she identified with kind of a lot of the core values of Judaism, like family and food and those kinds of things in the culture,” Mr. Piser said. “Me, growing up, as a product of my mom and dad, I found those overlaps. My Jewish family was always talking about the next meal. The same thing with my Chinese side. It was always about being together, eating together, and talking about our lives.
“It was always the Jewish guilt, the Chinese guilt. Also, like in terms of tikkun olam and philanthropy, the sentiment is very synchronistic for the two communities.
“It’s a big generalization but, from my experience, that’s what I found.”
Mr. Piser was a bar mitzvah and attended Hebrew day school through confirmation. “I’m still very close with my rabbi, Mark Bloom, at Temple Beth Abraham” in Oakland, Mr. Piser said.
Mr. Piser grew up knowing he was different, but not because he experienced any bullying. “I learned I was different because I looked different,” he said. “I knew I was different because we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew because we didn’t celebrate the same holidays our neighbors did.”
Despite his successes, that difference manifested itself when he first got to New York. “When I first came to the city, I assumed I’d only be seen for Asian roles. But my experience was that I actually didn’t quite fit in with Asian roles and I didn’t quite fit in with white roles. So I decided I’m just going to go out for roles I care about and if it works out great.”
And clearly it has.
When: Runs from June 7 to July 2
Where: At the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn
How much: Tickets start at $35
How to order: Call (973) 376-4343 or go to papermill.org.