Basalt High brings musical ‘Rent’ to the stage |

Basalt High brings musical ‘Rent’ to the stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
David LedinghamBrooke Murray, left, and Emily Morley are featured in the Basalt High School production of the rock musical "Rent," playing Friday through Sunday at the Basalt Middle School theater.

BASALT – The latest hot, enviable thing on local high school campuses isn’t a new gadget or an article of clothing. It’s a theater piece – “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock opera. The musical, based on Puccini’s 1896 opera “La boheme,” was recently made available for school productions, and makes its valley debut this weekend, with the Basalt High School theater department presenting “Rent” at the Basalt Middle School auditorium.

“All the kids in other schools have been so jealous: ‘You’re doing “Rent,” and we’re doing “The Wizard of Oz?”‘” said David Ledingham, who is directing the Basalt High School production. “High school kids, they see ‘Rent’ as being about them.”

In fact, “Rent” is about a group of artistically inclined residents of New York’s East Village neighborhood, in the early ’90s. It is about AIDS and the HIV virus, the prospect of an early death and homelessness. And it is about an issue that some high school students – especially those who would choose to participate in an extracurricular musical theater project – may soon face. Should they pursue the artistic, Bohemian life, with all the financial and creative struggle that comes with it, or opt for a more practical route?

“All the people in this play are facing a big decision: Do they choose a life of going after their dreams, which may be very difficult financially? Or do they choose the sensible path that’s going to lead to security and stability?” Ledingham said. “I’m sure that every kid goes through that, whether it’s arts or sports. This is when people are incredibly idealistic, in their late teens, early 20s.”

Ledingham – and his wife, Adrianna Thompson, who is choreographing the show, and Katie Hone Wiltgen, the Basalt High School choir and band director who is the musical director on “Rent” – could have gone with a conventional choice themselves. “Do we do ‘The Producers?’ Do we do something very Broadway mainstream? Or do we do something that’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids?” Ledingham said of his initial response when asked to direct for Basalt High School. “‘Rent’ became very mainstream. But the actual subject matter is not mainstream at all. That’s why I think it’s one of the most important musicals of the last few decades. It’s not ‘Mamma Mia!’ – it’s as far from ‘Mamma Mia!’ as you can get.”

There is no sense of escapism to “Rent.” Instead, it looks reality in the eye. Larson, who spent seven years writing the book and music – while holding down a job as a waiter at the iconic Moondance Diner in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood – saw, in the late ’80s, the devastation that AIDS was causing in New York’s community of artists. Larson began with “La boheme,” the story of a group of artists, including the gravely ill seamstress Mimi, trying to hang onto their alternative lifestyle in 1830s Paris. He moved the setting to the East Village of the 1990s – “one of the last bastions for artists trying to live the Bohemian life in New York,” said Ledingham, who lived in New York during the period.

Larson came up with a cast of characters that includes the dying transvestite Angel; the HIV-positive Roger, who wants to write one great song before he dies; and Mark, who weighs whether to make a documentary about the community of artists in his neighborhood, or abandon the project for a steady job in the mainstream media.

“The movie he makes is ‘Today 4 U’ – about people who have to live for today, or else they’re going to slit their wrists,” Ledingham said. “It’s about, How do you live life in the moment and have a relationship, while your questionable future is looming, you might die of AIDS?”

Ledingham has been slightly surprised at how easily the Basalt High School community accepted his choice to do “Rent.” He made sure to give the play a broader presence than just the performance on stage. The participants in “Rent” will be outside the theater after the shows, collecting money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which assists critically ill people. And next week there will be an after-school discussion about the show and its themes, with the entire student body invited.

“I wanted the kids to have an experience of theater as a social platform, and to shine a light on an issue,” Ledingham said.

The issue particularly close to Ledingham’s heart is the embrace of the arts. A graduate of the masters acting program at the University of California, San Diego, the Aspen product moved to New York in 1986 to pursue an acting career. His most mainstream success came on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” and in a 2007 touring production of “The Light in the Piazza,” but since then his artistic life has been largely on stage, and more fringe than mainstream. He has acted and directed for Theatre Aspen, did a season at Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater, and his Pegasus Repertory Theatre has staged creatively ambitious productions in Los Angeles, New York, most recently, in Aspen, with last spring’s debut of the Aspen Fringe Festival.

He says it is often a struggle, trying to raise money for his theater projects, living far from the country’s theater centers and bringing up his young son, while trying to stay artistically engaged on a meaningful level. And he doesn’t see that American society supports those kinds of efforts.

“It’s a profound dysfunction in our culture. We don’t support arts; we don’t support artists unless they’re big stars who don’t need the support. We don’t support the struggling artists,” Ledingham said. “And art is so important. Art is the only true, honest way of examining our society and culture. It is the system of checks and balances, the way of making sure we’re making the right choices for our people.”

“Rent” may seem like a contemporary tale, especially compared to “Hair,” “South Pacific,” “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” all recent Broadway hits. But Ledingham points out that the East Village scene depicted in “Rent” is already gone, just 14 years after the show opened.

“[Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, in New York in the ’90s, he got rid of them,” Ledingham said of the street people who populate “Rent.” “And I have no idea where he put them. I suspect he gave them a couple hundred bucks, stuck them on a bus and sent them to San Francisco. I really believe that. That’s the conspiracy theory, anyway. And if you go to San Francisco, the Tenderloin [district], the homeless are everywhere – exactly how it was in New York in the early ’90s, when I lived there.”

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