For the Observer-Rapporteur
The production of the musical “Rent” at the Geyer Performing Arts Center is an exciting project for the show’s co-directors and cast.
“That show really defined who we were and how we felt at the time,” said Tyler Handford, who co-directs production with Rachael Szabo. “He was the ‘Hamilton’ of our generation.”
“Tyler and I bonded over the music of ‘Rent’ all through high school,” Szabo said. “We used to sing one of the most popular songs on the show, ‘What You Own’, as a duet quite often.”
Released in 1996, “Rent” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan’s East Village during the booming era of the New York bohemian under the shadow of HIV. /AIDS.
“The show’s message really spoke to me as a young gay man from the 90s,” Handford said. “I was a teenager, in the closet, trying to figure out how to navigate life, not knowing if society or my family would accept me, and ‘Rent’ showed me what it was like for people like me to be treated normally, or even celebrated.
Although Handford said his family were very open-minded about who he was, he said the musical showed him what it was like to be unabashedly himself and helped him give some courage.
Every year since 2014, Handford and Szabo have applied for the rights to do the show and been denied each time. They’ve been busy doing other specials for them, but “Rent” has always been on their minds.
Besides the message, Handford said the music on “Rent” is really what makes the show so special for audiences. All the lyrics come from an honest place and almost every number packs a huge emotional punch, he said.
“The musical style is really a mix of pop, rock, soul, gospel, rap, techno and contemporary Broadway,” he said. “This motley group of artists and bohemians is the definition of a chosen family, and I think it’s easy for people to identify with them.”
Handford added that what makes the show so special is what also makes it difficult to produce.
“Due to its rock opera format, there are very few spoken words,” Handford said. “It’s really song after song after song, and it can be difficult both for the actors and for the [Szabo] and me as directors.
About 30 actors are involved in the show, many of whom travel quite a distance to take part.
“We have people coming from New Kensington, Brownsville, Pittsburgh, Uniontown, Latrobe and other places that aren’t very close to the theater because they all wanted a chance to be part of this special show,” said Szabo, adding that the passion everyone has for the show shines through in their performances. “We have our usual faces that you see at the Geyer and quite a few new faces as well.”
Handford said new faces have also appeared behind the scenes.
“We’re working with a new musical director, David Kornfield, and he’s absolutely wonderful,” he said. “David loves the show as much as we do, so it’s been great working with him.”
He added that he and Szabo also work with their longtime collaborators, Marina Stefano as the show’s choreographer and Tina Lepidi-Stewart as the show’s stage manager.
“So rehearsals are like a big family,” Handford said, adding that he and Szabo shared directing duties for seven to eight years of shows. “We always come with our own visions for our shows, and we meet in the middle.”
“Tyler and I both studied with the likes of Merle Stutzman, Bill Colvin, Dane Shultz, and Marsha Brady in Connellsville High School’s musicals and acting/directing programs, and they steered a tight ship. “Szabo said. “We are definitely a product of their leadership and we are very proud of that.”
“Rent” will run February 17-19 at 7:30 p.m. and February 20 at 2:30 p.m. at the Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale.