When Brian Gligor steps on the stage nearly every day, he isn't thinking about homelessness or the scourge of AIDS.
He's thinking about hope.
Gligor, 24, plays Mark Cohen, the narrator in RENT, which comes to the Stranahan Theater for shows on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Mark is a storyteller," Gligor said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. And the story he's telling is about New York City's artist community of the early '90s, when the AIDS epidemic was on the front pages of the newspaper and among the lead stories of the nightly news.
"[The play] deals with a lot of tough issues like homelessness and drug addiction and selling out," Gligor said. "It's a very good representation of what the artist community was like at that time. Our characters are dealing with these things, but they really are dealing with them, not just coping. Ultimately, the messages of the show are 'no day but today' and 'cherish each moment' and 'there's no better way to spend your moments than to love.' So if you really pay attention to the message … the show leaves you in a positive way."
RENT, which was inspired by Puccini's La Boheme, won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the 1996 Tony Award for best musical. Writer/composer Jonathan Larson, who died the day of the show's final dress rehearsal before opening, incorporated elements of his life and his friends into his script.
Though he grew up in White Plains, N.Y., Larson lived and worked in a Greenwich Village loft where the doorbell didn't work, the bathtub was in the middle of the kitchen, and electrical cords snaked around the room to make up for lack of electrical outlets, according to Gregory Beals, a former roommate who wrote about Larson and his milieu for Newsweek magazine.
"It's a show that has a lot of heart and a lot of integrity. And it's about something. A lot of musicals are for entertainment, and that's great. It's always fun to watch good dancing and singing and stuff, but the musicals I've always found to be most rewarding as an audience member are the ones that are actually have something to say," Gligor said.
In fact, he suggested that audience members might want to familiarize themselves with the music before coming to a performance.
"RENT is a very fast-paced show and a lot happens in the first act, a lot of exposition, and you definitely need to pay attention," he warned.
There are also a lot of characters to sort out.
The main ones, in addition to Mark, a documentary filmmaker, are Benny Coffin, the landlord; Tom Collins, a computer whiz; Roger Davis, a musician with writer's block; Joanne Jefferson, a lawyer; Maureen Johnson, Mark's former lover; Mimi Marquez, a dancer at an S/M club, and Angel Schunard, a street musician;. Some are HIV positive, some are junkies, some live alternative lifestyles. Each will have an impact on the others' lives.
Though Gligor believes RENT would have deserved an R rating when it opened in 1996, these days a PG-13 rating might be more appropriate - because times have changed, not because it has been watered down. "There's some cursing in it, but there's nothing really too in your face," he said.
A native of New Jersey, Gligor says Mark is his dream role. "I loved the show when I was in high school. When it came out on Broadway, they had the lottery system [which offered tickets to students for a nominal fee], so I used to sleep out on the street overnight to get them."
After graduation from Syracuse University in 2002, Gligor headed for New York, where he worked as a waiter and was in a couple of small plays before he won the role of Mark in the touring production of RENT.
He believes the show's staying power - it has been in production somewhere nonstop since 1996 - lies in its universal message about love. "It's about these young artists that are searching for a sense of community, and … it's given a lot of fans a sense of community," he said, referring to numerous online chat rooms and Web sites devoted to the production.
A major part of the appeal is the music, he said.
It's very much rock and roll, so it attracts a lot of audience members who wouldn't necessarily be interested in classic musical theater productions such as The Music Man.
"It's bringing a whole bunch of new people into the theater scene who might not really be into theater, much like Jesus Christ, Superstar, A Chorus Line, and other alternative musicals did," he said.
Gligor said he has several favorite scenes in the show.
"I love the 'Tango Maureen' in the first act; it's a lot of fun. 'What You Own' in the second act represents Mark's entire struggle and coming to grips with what's happening in his life. It's kind of Mark's closure. I really love that song, because I feel the whole show kind of builds up to that for me.
" 'Seasons of Love' is also incredible. The whole cast comes out and we line up on the edge of the stage, and we take a moment to just send the message out to the audience. We're not preoccupied with the scene that we're in, we just kind of take a break from the story and come out and tell the audience, 'This is really what we're trying to tell you guys.'
"One thing that's very important for everyone to know is that HIV and AIDS do exist and it's still very much a part of our lives. It's different now. When it first came on the scene - and what our story's about - is a time when if you found out you were HIV positive, you had like a year to live. It was a death sentence, a pretty immediate death sentence. Now with all the medicines they have, you can live like 30 years if you take really good care of yourself. But it's still very much a part of our lives, a part of our culture … and it's important for every community to acknowledge that."
"RENT" is scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $39.50 from Ticketmaster, 419-474-1333 or the Stranahan box office. Information: 419-381-8851.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6130.
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