In its 12-year, $280 million-grossing run on Broadway beginning in 1996, the rock opera Rent won prizes galore and a cult following among a generation of young theater fans. One show, glory. So it may be hard to imagine why Michael Greif, director of the Tony-winning original Broadway show, would want a second crack at it. Why fix what ain’t broke, right? But the director signed on to helm a new production opening Aug. 11 at Off Broadway’s New World Stages that he vows is an even more vibrant, deeply affectionate incarnation of the late composer Jonathan Larson’s work.
First, off with the Band-Aid: The old look of the show is gone, replaced by new costumes and set designs. “It was just about re-examining,” Greif explains. “I wanted to tell the story a little differently physically.” For one thing, he added video screens onstage to underscore the work of budding filmmaker Mark (played by Next to Normal alum Adam Chanler-Berat). “I wanted to see some of the world through his eyes,” Greif says. “The use of projections helped us in many ways.”
One reason Greif wanted projections was to provide background for audiences too young to remember the early ’90s — when Manhattan’s East Village was a grittier, pre-gentrified place and AIDS was devastating the gay community. “We were getting younger audiences. There were certain things that some people in the audience couldn’t quite understand,” says Greif. “I think they needed to know what a tent city was, for instance. There were certain things that when we made the play, in the mid-’90s, people understood very easily. But I think this audience sometimes needs a little help.”
Not that this is some CliffsNotes version of Larson’s beloved musical. Greif insists that he tries to preserve the soulful, offbeat core values of Rent. “The characters are much the same. Without straitjacketing this fantastic new group of performers, I hope that the essential colors of those characters are recognizable and similar,” he says. “Jonathan [Larson] wrote the play in honor of friends of his who were struggling with HIV or who had died of HIV, and then when he very tragically died, the play very much became also in honor of its author. And the play being a tribute to wonderful young people who were taken before their time is very much the same.”
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