When Nick Mitchell's friends ask him about "Rent," he gives them two options.

"Do you want the short version or the long version?" he said. "Because I could just start talking and go for hours."

Mitchell, an 18-year-old high school senior from Centerville, is a self-proclaimed Renthead.

He calls himself a fan, but his abstruse obsession with the musical crosses the border into fanaticland.

It was two years ago this month when Mitchell declared himself a Renthead. He had only heard about the musical until his voice instructor dubbed him a copy of the music.

"I remember I came home and I sat down on the floor in my bedroom and put it in and followed along with the words," Mitchell said. "When it was over, I just sat there. I was in shock, it was so incredible. So I rewound it and played it all over again."

Mitchell, who aspires to work in musical theater, is drawn not only to the music in "Rent," but also to the lyrics and message in the musical.

"It's presented in a way that forces you to pay attention," he explained. "It's in your face and it teaches a really important lesson."

Mitchell has seen "Rent" four times: once in St. Paul, once in Chicago and twice in London. This week, he will see it three times in Des Moines and again in Iowa City.

"Once, while I was in New York with a school group, I snuck down to the theater where it plays and stood in the lobby and sat there and listened," he said. "It was worth having the chaperones a little mad at me for sneaking away in downtown New York."

Mitchell communicates with other Rentheads nation-wide via the Internet, and is also trying to recruit friends to join in his crusade.

"I'm really the only one in my town who's gone overboard," he said. "To me, it's not going overboard, but to some people, it is. They think I'm insane."

Although Mitchell said it is impossible to pick a favorite song from "Rent," he does have a favorite scene -- the last in Act 1, in which the cast sings "La Vie Boheme."

"They just go nuts," he said. "They get up on the tables and go crazy. The actors look like they are having so much fun."

Mitchell is the proud owner of an enormous variety of "Rent" paraphernalia, including shirts, mugs, playing cards, temporary tattoos, keychains, magnets and even pictures of himself with cast members.

"I have everything you could possibly imagine," he said. "I've made my own 'Rent' paintings."

One of Mitchell's favorite "Rent" items is a book Rentheads refer to as their bible.

"It basically tells the story of 'Rent,'" he said. "How it came to be. The history of the show. It is 'Rent,' basically."

The Renthead bible includes a testimonial to "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson, who is such an inspiration to Mitchell he has written essays about him for college applications.

"He put so much of himself into that show," Mitchell explained. "He lived a lifestyle that most people would not even wish on their worst enemy's dog. His bathtub was in his kitchen. He would sell personal possessions to get more money to write the show.

"It got to the point where he wanted to conserve so much of his mind power to write the show that he would eat the exact same things for meals so he wouldn't have to think about what he was going to eat," he continued. "If I could have an ounce of that dedication for my career and my goals, this will be worthwhile."

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Title: Confessions of a Renthead
Author: Corey Moss
Newspaper: Iowa State Daily
Date: February 18, 1999