Shawn Stengel, music director and conductor for the Paramount Theatre’s production of the musical “RENT,” wants the show to be a moving experience.
“People go to the theater because they want to be swept along,” Stengel said. “If we are effective in our storytelling, then people will be moved by what we present.”
“RENT,” with music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson, centers on a group of young artists and musicians struggling to survive and be creative in New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. The show was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.”
The story updates the 1800s Paris of “La Boheme” to the 1980s New York City where the subject matter includes HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and drug addiction. From a poet and a musician to a lawyer and a drag queen, the character’s lives are intertwined as they fight to survive in the city and, in some cases, fight for their lives.
“In ‘La Boheme,’ the character Mimi had tuberculosis and died,” said Jim Corti, the show’s director. “‘RENT’ is updated with young people dealing with AIDS and being HIV positive. It is a classic, tragic opera that is cleverly updated.”
After an off-Broadway debut, “RENT” opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, and ran through Sept. 7, 2008, for a total of 5,123 performances. “RENT” won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical in 1996.
Unlike many musicals in the Paramount Theatre Broadway Series that feature full orchestras, “RENT” is presented with a five-piece band.
“That’s how it started with the small off-Broadway show,” Stengel said. “When it grew into a Broadway production, they kept the small band. The show is operatic in its storytelling. But it’s a straight-ahead rock show. The show is driven by two guitars, drums, a bass and keyboards.”
“RENT” is the third show that Corti and Stengel have worked on together at the Paramount (The other two were “My Fair Lady” and “Miss Saigon”). The two theater veterans are open to one another’s ideas.
“There is a shorthand,” Corti said. “I enjoy his expertise. He is an incredible musician and has a director’s eye as well. We always find a way to agree on everything we do.”
Stengel echoes the sentiment.
“There may be an occasional conflict in an artistic sense,” he said, “but it is helpful that we have worked together. We know what is important to the other guy. Rehearsing is all about negotiating and figuring it out. We respect each other’s opinions and trust each other.”
And figuring things out together is part of what the characters in “RENT” have to do.
“The core of the show is being in these difficulties and dealing with the problems of society in the ’80s and ’90s,” Corti said.
“These characters are all misfits and outcasts in some way. They experience that hardship and appreciate life in a new way. It’s about being in the moment and living for today; enjoying life as it happens.”
Stengel thinks the show’s appeal registers on several levels.
“The message of the show is what makes it more than entertainment,” he said. “It is so moving. Life is hard, but if we can care for each other, then that’s incredible.”
♦ March 12-April 6
♦ Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
♦ Tickets, $36.90 to $49.90
♦ (630) 896-6666