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25 years later, the surprising parallels between 'Rigoletto's' writer and main character


October 11, 2018

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Leo Paur grew up fighting. Every time a challenge would come his way, he felt obligated to respond. None of his siblings reacted like him, but for Paur, fighting was second-nature. “It was just the way (I) did things,” he said.

“It’s a simple matter of, ‘Who’s tougher, you or (the other guy)? Well, I am of course,’” he continued. “So you fight.

“I developed this crust,” said Paur, a screenwriter, director, history teacher and West Valley City native. “Even to this day, I walk in and think, ‘Gosh, who is there that I might have to fight?’”

Yet behind his tough exterior there is a loving and gentle side to Paur that goes beyond his appreciation for Shakespeare and classical opera. “I always had within myself this longing for other people to see what was really there,” he said. “A nice guy. A guy that would love to sit down and cry (but) couldn’t.”

Paur couldn’t cry, but he gave audiences that opportunity when he wrote the screenplay and directed the 1993 Feature Films for Families movie, “Rigoletto,” a tear-jerker influenced by his own growing up years.

The movie takes place in a fictional world inspired by (and filmed in) the eastern central Utah town of Helper. A small town — filled with more than a few small-minded people — is changed dramatically when a rich and mysterious stranger, Mr. Ribaldi, arrives. While many in town are threatened by his scarred face and rude mannerisms, a young teenage girl begins working for him and soon discovers his voice and soul are as beautiful as the townspeople believe his face and demeanor are ugly.

Mr. Ribaldi teaches her how to sing. All the while, the townspeople harden their hearts against him just as strange miracles start popping up. Love and hate gradually coalesce and crescendo into a beautiful but tragic ending.

As the film’s writer, Paur said the screenplay had many inspirations. His parents grew up in Helper, Utah, and every time the family passed through Castlegate and its stunning mountains on their way to visit their parents' hometown, he imagined himself entering a magical world. He patterned the film’s young heroine after his mother, Bonnie Paur. He was introduced to Verdi on his mission and Verdi's famous opera stayed with him. And so on.

But in the 25 years since the movie came out, even more parallels between Paur and his protagonist Ribaldi have emerged.

Paur worked on virtually every aspect of the movie from writing the script to casting to directing. If it weren’t for Paur, “Rigoletto” wouldn’t exist.

But behind the scenes, Paur and the film's executives argued about the film's details — arguments that Paur fought with the same intensity he displayed growing up in the schoolyard. Did a certain track too closely resemble a copyrighted version? Did the movie really need a song written in Italian? What characteristics of the film’s heroine played by Ivey Lloyd were truly essential to the character? Should the movie even be made?

Paur fought relentlessly for his vision of “Rigoletto.” The final product bears his fingerprints inside and out — but he burned bridges in the process. Paur's aggressiveness angered many people around him, and he felt hurt in return.

“After ‘Rigoletto,’ I wanted nothing to do with the entertainment world,” said Paur, who has written two unpublished sequels to the movie.

Yet despite tensions behind the scenes, “Rigoletto’s” positive reception has lasted for decades. Paur’s brother, opera singer and actor Joe Paur, played the role of Ribaldi and has received thousands of letters from fans — especially in the Bible Belt where he said the film did very well.

“They’re (from) kids who have never felt special,” said Joe Paur. “And when they see the show, they feel special.”

The film definitely helped Joe Paur’s popularity. Sometimes fans would approach the brothers for autographs at restaurants — or rather, fans would approach Joe Paur while his brother went unrecognized.

“I think it killed him,” said Joe Paur.

Joe Paur would always point out his brother’s contributions to admirers, but fame being what it is, Leo Paur never got much recognition for the movie or his talents.

Over time, Leo Paur began to feel an emptiness when he thought about “Rigoletto.” While it was changing lives around the country, few recognized Leo Paur for the beauty he produced — just as in the film, few people recognized Ribaldi for the good he did.

“(Ribaldi) was quite cantankerous and misunderstood by the townspeople,” said Kurt Bestor, the movie’s composer. “Therein lies the conflict of the movie.”

And therein, too, is the conflict in Leo Paur’s life.

He spent his youth fighting to burnish his reputation for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. He recalled how he always seemed to rub people the wrong way, and yet engenders memories of integrity and beauty that brought his brother nearly to tears.

“There was a woman whose car rolled over and it started on fire,” said Joe Paur. “And everybody was standing back because they were afraid it was going to blow up. Well, Leo was the guy that went over and jumped on top of the car, reached down to the lady and pulled her out.”

Just like Ribaldi, Leo Paur has a loving heart protected by a crust few penetrate.

“‘Rigoletto' is about looking past superficiality into what makes a real human being,” said Leo Paur. “I think very few people have that ability. I guess that would be a real Christ-like thing to be able to look past the crust and look into the heart of a human being.”

Twenty-five years later, "Rigoletto's" uplifting message, excellent acting and beautiful music still resonate. Yet a glimpse into the life of its creator — a man who grew up fighting but wanted to be seen for who he was on the inside — deepens the movie's themes.

“(‘Rigoletto') is Leo,” said Joe Paur. “This is what his heart is like. Behind all the gruff, this is what Leo's heart is like.”

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