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'Rent' takes up residence at Pioneer

Published: Thursday, June 9 2011 5:55 p.m. MDT

Andy Mientus, left, plays Mark, and Fabio Monteiro plays Roger in Pioneer's "Rent."

Alex Weisman, PTC

Enlarge photo»

How do YOU measure a year?

Candles on the cake? Inches marked on a wall? Fees due at the library?

Perhaps, more poetically put, "in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee?"

So begins Act II of the landmark musical, "Rent," opening Friday at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

"Rent" is one of a small handful of musicals that not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but also the Pulitzer Prize.

Based on Puccini's opera "La Boheme," "Rent" burst on to the scene in 1996 in a flurry of tremendous word of mouth, ushering in a new era of musical theater — the primary goal of creator Jonathan Larson.

"It's very different from the kind of musicals we typically do," said Pioneer Theatre Company managing director, Chris Lino. "Because of both its musical idiom — a pop-rock musical — and its subject matter."

Set in New York in the early '90s, the musical, simply put, is about a group of friends dealing with AIDS.

"In the world 'Rent' inhabits, AIDS has been almost a certain death sentence," Lino said. "The drug AZT has just been developed, and there is just starting to be some hope for people with HIV. But at that time a diagnosis of AIDS meant, if not certain death, then at least a very serious confrontation with mortality."

The first recognized cases of AIDS were reported in Los Angeles and New York City in 1981. Ten years later, amid a frenzy of misinformation and fear, AIDS would be the leading cause of death in the U.S. of men ages 25-44.

Things are getting better.

"Karen Azenberg, the show's director and a friend of Larson, asked the cast to substitute the name of a personal friend of theirs who had died of AIDS for the name of a character in the show," Lino said. "Not a single cast member — they're all in their 20s — knew someone who had died of AIDS. That's obviously a positive thing. But it's profoundly different from the world experienced by young people who came of age in the '80s and '90s."

But viewing "Rent" as a play about AIDS may be a short-sighted.

" 'Rent' has a timeless theme that I think resonates particularly with young people," Lino adds. "That theme is the universal brotherhood of man and the idea of universal love: love that is blind, love that looks beyond color, or race, or gender, or sexual identity, love that judges not, love that seeks not to alter."

In an eerie turn of events, another theme of the through-sung rock musical — living life in the moment — seems a bit prophetic for creator, Jonathan Larson. After working on the piece for seven years, Larson collapsed on his kitchen floor the night before the show opened off-Broadway. He died at 35 of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.

He never got to see the impact of "Rent," its success or how it lured younger audiences to the theater; some "rentheads" seeing it more than 1,000 times.

"It appeals to a younger audience, for whom it is both relevant and engaging in a way that traditional musicals — let's say 'White Christmas' for example — are not," Lino said.

Theaters around the country are striving to get younger audiences in the doors. "If Pioneer Theatre Company is going to appeal to this younger audience, this potential next generation of theatergoers, then from time to time we need to do a show that speaks to that generation."

PTC added "Rent" as a special eighth show to its regular seven-show season, thereby allowing patrons an option. "Roughly 45 percent of our 8,100-plus subscribers included 'Rent' in their season tickets, which is a pretty good number," Lino said. "On the other hand, it means we have a lot more single ticket inventory than we usually have for a show."

"We think 'Rent' is a landmark musical," Lino added. "Perhaps a great musical that, if it didn't reinvent the form of musical theatre, at least profoundly changed the notion of what musical theater could be."

If you go...

What: "Rent," PioneerTheatre Company

Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Park City

When: Today-June 25; times vary

Phone: 801-581-6961Web: pioneertheatre.org

email: ehansen@desnews.com

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