BRATTLEBORO — Honor roll student Christol Long may not be one to act up, “but I've always wanted to be in a musical.”
So imagine the 17-year-old junior's reaction upon winning a lead role in this week's Brattleboro Union High School production of the Broadway hit Rent.
“Rent?” she recalls thinking. “What's Rent?”
The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera, Long would learn, chronicles the lives of young artists fighting the initial 1980s outbreak of AIDS with such untested and toxic drugs as AZT.
“AZT?” she recalls thinking. “I didn't know what that was either.”
The teenager wasn't alone. The musical's faculty directors remember when AIDS was a death sentence rather than a treatable disease, but no student in the 17-member cast was alive upon the show's 1996 Broadway debut, let alone the earlier era it portrays.
So in between rehearsals for this week's public performances, teachers have introduced students to local social service professionals and people with the human immunodeficiency virus that can lead to AIDS, all to explain what the threat once was - and how it continues to touch their community today.
Consider the 50-year-old man who grew up in Brattleboro, moved away to work, and returned shortly after being diagnosed with the disease in 2008.
“I thought it was the end of the road,” he told students. “I had a whole slew of infections. I came home to die.”
But the man who once had a mere 10 T-cells - a type of white blood cell that helps a body's immune system fight infection - now has a normal number (500) thanks to advances in treatment.
“I'm doing well, and I'm here,” he told students who responded with a round of applause.
Michael Gigante, a Brattleboro psychotherapist who helped found the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont in 1988, can name too many friends who can't say the same.
“When AIDS started to attack and people started to die,” Gigante told students, “we came together and started support groups.”
Of the 45 people Gigante knew had the disease in the early years of the epidemic, “all except for two are now dead,” he said. “Death from AIDS was excruciating and painful and ugly and hard. It was hell to help someone through that. And we did it over and over again.”
Everything changed during the time period depicted by “Rent,” when doctors began experimenting with drug combinations that now allow people to live.
“Although there's better treatment, for many people, HIV is much more complicated than simply taking a pill,” AIDS Project case manager Marguerite Monet told students. “And there's still a huge amount of stigma and discrimination attached. People are afraid to reveal their status.”
The AIDS Project currently serves 80 clients in Windham, Bennington, and southern Windsor counties, with a diverse caseload of people male and female, gay and straight, black and white, young and old.
“They kept saying, 'This is going to affect all of us,'” Monet recalls of the early days of the disease, “and that has become increasingly true.”
That's why the musical's faculty producers and directors decided not only to tackle the show but also to educate the cast and crew about how the disease developed over time and can be prevented today.
“I thought this could be a teachable moment,” music co-director Stephen Rice says, “an opportunity for students to engage and become more aware, empathetic, and compassionate.”
Adds stage director Robert Kramsky, who's marking his 40th year leading BUHS musicals: “Some people might look at this as a period piece and not realize it has relevance today.”
Students in the cast and crew voice appreciation for what they're learning.
“I think we're really taking this show to heart,” senior Vanessa Brown says.
The 50-year-old local man with AIDS relates. Asked by students to describe the moment he was diagnosed, he recalled, “I was numb and hallucinating - I had lesions on the brain.”
Then he remembered the first time he saw Rent and heard its honest yet hopeful songs - from “Seasons of Love” to “No Day But Today.”
“It really gave me some empathy, and I've emerged a stronger, better person,” he said. “I'm psyched to see you folks address this issue.”