‘Loud, fun and pretty’: Music director Mat Levine knows the score for CCT’s ‘Rent’

‘Loud, fun and pretty’: Music director Mat Levine knows the score for CCT’s ‘Rent’

CHAMBERSBURG – “For the last five or so years, I’ve really tried to stay behind the scenes more,” said Mat Levine, Chambersburg Community Theatre. As CCT’s managing director, he is currently responsible for preparing the pit orchestra for their production of “Rent,” which opens Friday night, while co-directors AimeeBeth Davis and Rachel Kern work with the cast.

“Prior to that, I was onstage a lot,” he said of his college years and subsequent amateur and semi-professional experience. When he started his graduate school degrees, he discovered that it would be a lot easier on himself to transition behind the scenes.

Most recently, he oversaw Waynesboro Area Senior High School’s theater program and choir (read more of his bio here), and he is the co-owner and engineer at Alley Cat Studios in Chambersburg.

“At this point, I’ve conducted a bunch of pits,” said Levine of his experience overseeing the live musicians playing beneath the stage, “but there’s not much relating to a show that I haven’t been tasked with before.”

The subject matter of “Rent” is heavy as mainstream musicals go. The 1994 musical by Jonathan Larson focuses on drug addiction and the AIDS crisis in New York City in the 80s and 90s. Stylistically, the show is the rare kind of rock opera that incorporates “rock” and “opera” in equal measures.

Accordingly, Levine’s approach to the band is more in line with a modern rock quartet (guitar, bass, drums, and Levine on keyboards) than the small orchestra that a more traditional musical might require. He had even hoped to place the band onstage throughout the show in the style of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but there wasn’t enough room.

“It was tricky,” he said of the challenges posed by coordinating a work on the scale of “Rent.”

“It’s really written as rock music, which is just lead sheets, chords and general rhythms, and then you have to fill in the rest. It’s sort of like jazz, actually, until it’s not, right? Then there are random moments where you have to do it exactly as it’s written. It’s certainly been challenging.”

Levine said that fans who were introduced to “Rent” solely from the movie might be in for a very different experience when they see the live stage show.

“As I mentioned, it’s a rock opera, so there are maybe a handful of spoken lines,” he said. “For the rest of it, you really have to be paying attention to what they’re singing because that’s where the story is being told.”

This is in contrast to the more familiar musical format where there are musical numbers sandwiched between dialogue-driven scenes.

“It’s more music than I’ve seen in a show before, and I’ve been in operas. It has more than those,” he said of the score, which is contained in two large, white binders – one act per binder.

CCT’s production of “Rent” is more than just a 90s nostalgia trip, and Levine believes the show will speak to Chambersburgers on multiple levels.

“The big one, that is probably more obvious to people, is dealing with drug addiction – especially in our community,” he said. “It’s quite rampant. So that part is still relevant.”

Less obvious, perhaps, to Chambersburgers is that the AIDS crisis never really ended. 650,000 people died, globally last year from AIDS-related illnesses. As an arts and theater organization, CCT is especially sensitive to this issue.

“People don’t realize that there was a generation of creatives that was wiped out by AIDS in the timeframe when this story is taking place,” he said. “Entire casts of Broadway that you can look back on from the 80s and 90s – they’re all dead, and it’s all because of AIDS. It’s very much a contemporary issue.”

The theater recently installed brand new LEDs, and Levine said they’ve spent a lot of time programming them and getting comfortable with them so CHambersburgers can expect “a wild light show” that aligns perfectly with his “straight-up rock musicians.”

“It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be pretty.”

Chambersburg Community Theatre’s production of “Rent” is one weekend only (March 17-19) with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here.

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