Columbine High is the first Jeffco school to take on ‘Rent’

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By Deborah Swearingen

Columbine High School officials promised Tracy Schwartz an opportunity to direct her dream show in honor of her end-of-the-year retirement.


For Schwartz, the decision was a no brainer: “Rent.” The musical has been a dream for as long as the English and theater teacher can remember, and for 20 years, she has been playing its soundtrack for inspiration prior to every show she’s directed at Columbine.

Thanks to the school’s approval and Schwartz’s dream, Columbine last week became the first school in Jefferson County to present the musical by Jonathan Larson that follows a year in the life of friends struggling to make it in Manhattan’s East Village. Based loosely on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” the musical deals with the AIDS epidemic, sexuality and addiction.

But for many of the actors, the show’s message runs much deeper than that. It’s about human connection and experience. It’s about real life.

“It’s showing what was happening in New York City in the ‘80s with the AIDS crisis, and it’s showing how that affected people rather than having a consistent plot,” said freshman Giacomo Battaglia.

Junior Torie Tonelli agreed, saying in a way, it’s easier to prepare for a musical like “Rent” because of the authenticity of the characters and their problems.

“Here, I mean, you’re playing real people. And in a lot of ways, you can connect with them more because they experience real human emotions, and they’re real people with actual problems that you would run into in life,” she said. “You’re not going to get a Wicked Witch. … You’re looking at drugs and disease. Those are very real.”

The show deals with mature subjects. It’s not for everyone, but Schwartz was transparent and open about what to expect with potential actors and audience members.

While the characters’ struggles reach beyond what many high school students have had to deal with, many of those in the play tried to connect with struggles in their own life to draw on similar feelings and emotions. Other actors recognized the significance of empathizing and portraying characters that are dealing with issues outside of the actors’ own understanding.

“It just gives you an insight into people who have sort of fallen through the cracks,” said junior Tasha Smith. “ … That can be very important because a lot of people exist in their own personal sphere, and they don’t know anything outside of that sphere.”

Over the years, Schwartz had a friend and several former students die from AIDS. Thus, she used many of her own encounters with the disease to help provide context for her students.

To the director, the community spirit of “Rent” parallels to that of the theater program.

“It’s about being an us, instead of a them,” she said.

“And I think the ‘us’ is our community, our cast, our crew, all the people that are involved in theater,” Schwartz added.

Just as the musical centers on friendship and acceptance, Schwartz strives to provide a home and a family environment for those in Columbine’s theater program.

Two hands forming a heart acted as a backdrop for many of the scenes in “Rent,” acting as a literal representation of what Schwartz hopes audience members and actors would take away from one of her favorite musicals – love is what it’s all about.