In 1996, Jonathan Larson created Rent, one of the most iconic and critically acclaimed rock musicals of all time. Based on Puccini’s La Boheme, Rent was produced by Oak Park native Jeffrey Seller (who most recently swept last summer’s Tonys as the producer of Hamilton). The story follows the lives of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive New York City during the 1980s under the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Larson, 35, died of an aortic aneurism the night before the Off-Broadway premiere.
The show went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. After a 12-year run, the show closed in 2008 but remains a musical theater classic, called the Hair of the ’90s.
Twenty years later, Rent: The 20th Anniversary tour is preaching the same themes of love, friendship and acceptance all around the world. And this tour has its own connection to the Metro Detroit Jewish community: The actor starring in the lead role of Mark Cohen is played by West Bloomfield native Danny Harris Kornfeld.
Kornfeld also happened to be a student at West Bloomfield High School when this writer was in middle school. When I got to high school, where his mom, Pam, was producer of our school plays, Kornfeld would stop by to see his mom and talk to us. Even then, he was a rock star to me and my theater friends.
Kornfeld, 25, started performing at JCC summer camps and was active at Temple Shir Shalom. Since then, he has originated the role of Mutto in Wringler, performed in multiple shows in New York and is now traveling on his first tour. Kornfeld took a break to chat with the JN about his newest role.
Jewish News: This has been a whirlwind experience for you. How have you been taking it in?
Danny Harris Kornfeld: It’s been surreal. Rent was the first show I’d ever seen on Broadway and the first soundtrack I ever memorized. I never thought I’d be the next Mark. Getting to play this part during this time was truly a dream come true.
JN: What were you doing when you found out you would be cast in Rent?
DHK: [laughs] I was in my final audition that day. I think it was my seventh time going in for it. I was seeing Bright Star [Tony Award win for Best Musical in 2016] that night and checked my phone at intermission and saw that someone from the casting director’s office called me. I called him back, in the 10 minutes I had for intermission time, and he told me I got the part. I don’t remember what happened the entire second act of the show because I was containing my excitement. After the show let out, I called my parents and I called my sister. It was all so exciting.
JN: How did your theater career start? Do you remember your first role?
DHK: I remember seeing Peter Pan with my cousins in Pennsylvania. Seeing him fly sparked my interest — I always wanted to do that. I was the baby bird in the Beth Hayeled [Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s former preschool] production of Are You My Mother? I did classes with the JCC and its summer theater camps and continued theater throughout middle and high school, then Syracuse University. Syracuse was nice because the last semester we lived in New York City so the transition wasn’t hard.
JN: Was there a defining moment for you that made you want to pursue acting?
DHK: I remember one of the most exciting times of getting a part. In fifth grade, West Bloomfield High School did Ragtime. When I got the part of Edgar, it was the first time I felt I achieved something that was out of range for me. Knowing I got it propelled me to make a career out of it.
JN: Who inspired you in the theater world, professionally or academically?
DHK: All my teachers who came into my life inspired me. They always stressed to be a good person. That sounds so simple but it is so important. Being a desirable person to work with will help you go so far in life. They not only celebrated my talent but they applauded and reprimanded me for being or not being a good person.
JN: What was the rehearsal process for Rent?
DHK: We rehearsed for three to four weeks before we started the tour. It felt fast because I was in shock — it still hasn’t hit me but especially then it was extremely overwhelming in the best of ways. We spent two and a half weeks in New York then opened Sept. 15.
JN: Did you feel any pressure playing such a well-known role?
DHK: Totally. The show has a cult following. It’s the Hamilton of the ’90s. Lin-Manuel Miranda even incorporated bits of Rent into Hamilton. You can see the parallels, which is unbelievable. With all the hype comes a lot of expectation from the audience. The show that people saw on Broadway in 1996 is still the same now for the 20th anniversary. You’re gonna see the same lighting, costumes and music. The cast is just different. We did our research to see what life was like back then, but we bring in our own spin and relate the characters to ourselves and where we are in life.
The show means a lot to a lot of people — and me — so I am excited to be a part of it. The job of an actor is to tell and share stories of the world. Sharing Rent during this political climate and getting to tell a story of love, celebration, acceptance and diversity every night is the most wonderful message to tell. The power to change people’s lives has driven me to do this as a career.
JN: How did opening night feel?
DHK: It was a whirlwind. Rent audiences are the best. They are so loyal and excited and know everything about the show. Before a song starts, they cheer because they know their favorite song is coming. They are genuinely excited when Angel makes her debut. It’s nice seeing people support such a positive story.
JN: How does it feel to come home to perform at the Fisher Theatre [owned by the same company that owns the Nederlander Theatre in New York where Rent originated]?
DHK: It’s crazy. I grew up seeing shows at the Fisher! It is a dream come true! If you told me when I was nine years old that I would get to perform on that stage, I would have peed myself. So many people have reached out to me saying they are coming, and it’s overwhelming to see the Metro Detroit community’s support. The school district, the synagogue, my family and friends are all so supportive, and it is so cool to see all the camaraderie.
JN: What advice would you give to actors pursuing a career in theater?
DHK: I think this transcends to any career path: If you are passionate and remain passionate, you will have success, because you will allow yourself to be. If you truly set out to do something, there is no way you won’t be able to do it. Find what keeps you inspired and passionate. Find a balance fueling that while living and surviving. When those things can merge well, that, to me, is success. Identify what is unique about you and be true to yourself. It will help you when you are trying to tell other people’s stories truthfully.
JN: What do you want people to understand before they take their seats?
DHK: They will see a story about love featuring the best score of music, with such great musical cast members and dancing. It’s so emotional; I think we take you on a journey through love, life, celebration, friendship and loss. Getting to feel all those things in two hours and 45 minutes is what theater should do for you.
Erin Ben Moche Special to the Jewish News
Rent will tour at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit March 22- 26. Tickets start at $35. Broadwayindetroit.com.