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"Rent" role is dream come true for West Bloomfield actor
"Rent" became a favorite for Danny Harris Kornfeld when he was seven years old -- a somewhat tender age to be exposed to a musical about sexuality and AIDs along with more genteel subjects such as classism and art vs. commerce.
"I heard the soundtrack first and saw it on Broadway when I was nine," Kornfeld, 25, a West Bloomfield High School graduate who plays Mark Cohen in the 20th anniversary touring company of "Rent," says by phone. "It sparked so many questions. I didn't know what being gay was or what being lesbian was. I had no idea what AIDs was. It really got me thinking."
And, of course, asking some questions of his parents, who now live in Birmingham.
"They were really good," Kornfeld recalls. "I remember I said to my mom, 'How do Collins and Angel know they're gay?' She was like, 'They just do.' And I remember them explaining to me what AIDS was, and they were always good about not skimming over things or dumbing things down just because I was young.
"So now to have a chance to help other people learn regardless of their age through ('Rent') is really important to me.
"Rent," of course, is one of Broadway's most important works. A contemporary adaptation of Gicomo Puccini's opera "La Boheme" by Monathan Larson -- who died the night before its Off-Broadway premiered in 1996 -- "Rent" mixed the topical and the tuneful with pop- and rock-based songs and a small, intertwined community of characters helping, and occasionally hindering, each other to survive in the area known as Alphabet City in New York's East Village. The provocative piece won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, with a Broadway cast that included Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Taye Diggs and Rosario Dawson.
"Rent" was also adapted into a 2005 film directed by Chris Columbus.
"People love this show so much. It very much was the 'Hamilton' of the '90s, and with that comes expectations," Kornfeld says. "This is the same production people saw in 1996, the same direction, the same set, the same costumes, but we are very much a new generation.
"I was born in the early 90s. I don't have a direct relationship to the AIDS epidemic or what life was like in the East Village in the late 80s and early 90s. But I've done all the research I can to know what it was like, but since we are a new generation we're bringing our own, modern sensibility to the material, which I think is refreshing."
Kornfeld, who was born in Philadelphia and to metro Detroit with his family when he was four years old, began his theater "career" as the baby bird in Dr. Seuss' "Are You My Mother" at Shaare Zedek Synagogue day school as a youth but was particularly influenced by an older cousin who was active in theater. "I saw him once in 'Peter Pan' and remember sitting and watching Peter Pan fly and knowing that if I ever got into theater, I would fly one day," Kornfeld recalls. He became active in middle school and community programs and at West Bloomfield High before heading off to Syracuse University, where earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2014 and moved to New York City straightaway.
"I had a professor in school who said the job of the actor is to tell the stories of the world until all the stories are told," Kornfeld says. "That always tuck wtih me and made a lot of sense as to why I wanted to get into it.
"Being that vessel to tell impactful and powerful, emotional stories that people can escape their daily lives from and sit and relate to and empathize with, being able to open people's eyes up is the best job in the world."
And while "Rent's" themes may be more than two decades old, Kornfeld feels there's continuing relevance in the story Larson created -- especially in role of Cohen, the comically neurotic filmmaker turned reluctant video journalist.
"The late 80s and early 90s was when (personal) cameras were first being introduced and people were able to start recoding things," Kornfeld explains. "In the show Mark is always filming, and his friends get on him for detaching and hiding behind the camera. I think that parallels with the way we use our cell phones. It's a way of detaching but it also is a way to capture as well.
"I think that's pretty interesting."
And, Kornfeld adds, "Rent" has taken on even greater poignancy during last year's charge political campaign and the conservative social agenda of the Trump administration.
"With our current political climate we need stories that continue to celebrate inclusion and diversity," he says. "Getting to take ('Rent') out on the road to a whole bunch of different states, especially right now, is just so important."
Tuesday, March 21-March 26.
The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
Tickets are $36-$85.
Special $20 tickets in the first two rows will be available for each performance and sold by lottery two and a half hours prior to curtain time.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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