Danny Kornfeld returns to hometown starring in Broadway revival of ‘Rent’
Correction: The run dates were incorrect in a previous version of this story. Also, Abbott Middle School theater teacher Ryan Moore's name was incorrect.
When he was still in elementary school, Danny Kornfeld’s parents took him to see the Broadway production of “Rent,” the rock musical about a group of young New Yorkers at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“Why I took an 11-year-old to see ‘Rent,’ I’m not quite sure,” his mother, Pam Kornfeld, said. (For the record, Danny thinks he was just 9.)
She added, “Maybe it wasn’t the best parenting decision, but he just loved the show.”
In retrospect, it all has the look of destiny.
Danny, now 25, will return to his hometown next week as the star of the 20th-anniversary national tour of the Pulitzer-winning “Rent,” at the Fisher Theatre starting Tuesday and running through March 26.
The graduate of West Bloomfield High School and Syracuse University’s drama program plays Mark Cohen, the show’s central character — a young filmmaker making his way in the big city.
“Mark’s the play’s narrator,” Danny explained when reached between performances last week in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“We see the show through his eyes. Mark lives in the East Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He’s single, and creating this film about his and his friends’ lives over the course of a year.”
One of the things Danny likes best about the character, he said, “is that I get to be directly involved in the action — but at other times step aside and just observe.”
Danny’s older sister Julie — an attorney working with refugees in New York — says she can’t remember a time when Danny didn’t say he was going to be an actor.
“That was clear from birth,” she said. “I don’t remember my brother ever not being an actor.”
It’s a variation on the line you hear over and over again from anyone who knew Danny as a kid. He was going to be an actor, he’d tell you. Period.
He credits several teachers at Abbott Middle School, including vocal-music director John Deierlein and theater teacher Ryan Moore, with steering him into community theater.
At 12, he won the lead in the Avon Players’ production of “Big River,” playing Huckleberry Finn.
It’s hard to imagine someone that young carrying an entire show, but Danny doesn’t recall any terror.
“When you’re that age, you’re more fearless,” he said. “You’re not as aware of your power and responsibility, or the opportunity you have to screw up.”
He suggests the adults behind the production were more apprehensive, “putting their trust in a 12-year-old.”
Deierlein, who worked with Danny on “Big River,” remembers a focus and drive that set the boy apart.
“He had a very strong work ethic. He would never settle for something being ‘good enough,’ ” Deierlein wrote in an email.
At the very end of “Big River,” Deierlein added, Huck Finn says goodbye to the audience, then turns around and walks offstage “into the sunset.”
Watching from behind the curtain on closing night, Deierlein said, “There wasn’t a dry eye from any of the cast or crew. That’s the effect Danny has on people. We all kind of thought that someday we’d say, ‘I knew him when ...’ ”
Danny’s modest about his talents, but when pushed, says he’s pleased with his acting and singing, but has always thought his dancing could use more work.
All in all, he seems to come by his skills naturally. His grandfather, Danny notes, was a singer with the Philadelphia Opera for 40 years. And Brian Lowdermilk, a cousin, is a nationally acclaimed composer and lyricist for the musical stage.
“Brian’s had a big influence on me,” he said.
Jenn Jacobs has been Danny’s best friend since they were 7, and saw Danny years ago in “Big River.” She was blown away.
Now a stage manager in New York, Jacobs, who flew to Chattanooga to catch one of Danny’s “Rent” performances, says she always knew he was pretty good on stage.
But the first time she realized he was really good was in middle school when she saw him in “Big River.” She recalled thinking, “Oh my God — he really is talented.”
Danny’s rise in the New York theater world, Jacobs concedes, has been pretty meteoric.
“We both graduated from college in 2014,” she said, “so this has happened pretty quickly for Danny. But he’s paid his dues and is so humble and grateful.”
For his part, Danny says that getting to perform in a show that raises some of the most controversial issues of our day — homosexuality, interracial love, and compassion for those with a stigmatizing disease — is an honor.
“Especially where we are right now in the world politically,” he said, “getting to open people’s minds is so important to me.”
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