How do you measure a person's life?
It's a question quickly answered in the opening minutes of "Rent": Love.
"I think 'Rent' fundamentally is a story about love," said Skyler Volpe, a member of the show's national touring company.
Part of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center's Broadway Series, the "Rent" 20th Anniversary Tour is coming to Rapid City. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9-10, and at 2 p.m. Feb. 10 in the Fine Arts Theatre of the Civic Center. Tickets are $47.50 to $57.50 depending on seats, and are available at www.gotmine.com.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's opera "La Boheme," the smash Broadway musical/rock opera is set in the late 1980s/early '90s, and follows a year in the life of a group of penniless friends in Manhattan's East Village.
These friends, all struggling artists, try to navigate the world while dealing with personal struggles ranging from drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, political unrest and broken relationships, all while wrestling with their own mortality.
When the characters struggle to know just what their lives are worth, the show's message remains: "Measure your life in love."
Volpe plays Mimi Marquez, one of the story's lead characters, a 19-year-old club dancer and drug addict who is trying to live her life to the fullest. Mimi lives in the same apartment building as Mark and Roger, roommates who are struggling to stay warm and fend off a harsh landlord. Mimi and Roger develop a romantic relationship, one among several romances the show explores.
Like several of the main characters in the show, Mimi is HIV positive. Volpe said despite Mimi's diagnosis, or perhaps because of it, the indomitable young woman chooses to live her life with joy.
"Every opportunity, she seizes it," Volpe said.
Created by a then-relatively unknown composer Jonathan Larson, "Rent" debuted off-Broadway in January 1996, and had become so popular by April of that same year that it moved into Broadway's Nederlander Theatre. Its awards included the 1996 Tony for Best Musical, and 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In 2005, it was adapted into a movie starring most of the original Broadway cast, including Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs.
Volpe, a native of New York state, said her mom was a big fan of "Rent" from the show's start, so she grew up singing along with the original Broadway cast's recording of the music.
The character of Mimi, in particular, always appealed to her. So when the opportunity came to play her, Volpe described it as "amazing."
"I always knew the music and always loved her songs, because they’re so driving and rockin' and just so good," she said.
Now, 21 years after its debut, "Rent" is still one of the more beloved and well-known Broadway shows, which Volpe said makes performing the show both easier and harder.
While the cast feels tremendous responsibility to "do justice" to the show, Volpe said she and her castmates don't feel pressure to re-create other actors' performances. Instead, she appreciates how audiences know, and love, the characters.
"That in the beginning was a little intimidating, but now I think it's a little bit freeing," she said. "The characters are the same characters, but no one is mimicking the characters from the past."
A show both popular and critically acclaimed for its head-on view of taboo issues, Volpe said the show is still culturally relevant.
In addition to addressing the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s, Volpe noted that several characters in "Rent" are current or former heroine addicts, "which is a huge crisis that's happening right now," she said, referencing the nation's current struggle with opioid abuse.
She said past and present heroin users who see the show often tell her and other members of the company that they haven't seen their struggles portrayed on stage the way "Rent" does.
"It’s really powerful to hear that, and it kind of makes you realize that this show is still an important work, and it’s still relevant, even though it was set in the early ‘90s," she said.