Preview: Rent Off Broadway

The LES hit musical returns Off Broadway.

VILLAGE PEOPLE Here's a new generation, ready for seasons of love.

VILLAGE PEOPLE Here's a new generation, ready for seasons of love. Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

When the news broke late last year that Rent would be revived Off Broadway at New World Stages, the initial reaction from a lot of theater lovers was, "Already?" After all, Jonathan Larson's rock-opera retelling of La Bohme had closed on Broadway in 2008 after a healthy 12-year run; there were two film adaptations (Chris Columbus's spiritless 2005 flick and 2008's Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway); and a star-studded concert version had just played at the Hollywood Bowl.

Turns out that critically acclaimed three-performance run in Los Angeles may have inspired this revival: Producer Allan S. Gordon reportedly got the idea to bring Rent back to New York while attending it last summer. Director Michael Greif, who helmed the show both on Broadway and in its original Off Broadway incarnation at New York Theatre Workshop, says he's not sure who pulled the trigger, but it's about time. "I was feeling like people were very anxious to see it up on stage again," he says. "I heard that from friends and especially friends of my children, who are 16 and 12. How great that these kids will get to see it the way it was meant to be experienced: live."

It's easy to scoff and say that the backers are only in this for the money, but classic shows are in constant rotation. There was a five-year gap between the recent La Cage aux Folles revivals, and just four years between Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in different Broadway productions of Gypsy. "You don't say, 'I don't want to do Romeo and Juliet because they just did it,'" jokes Rent set designer Mark Wendland, who has collaborated with Greif on numerous shows, including Next to Normal, (which, like Rent, won the Pulitzer Prize). "It's exciting to get your hands on a great work of art and have a chance to try and interpret it."

Wendland's massive jungle gym of a set is part of what Greif hopes will make this production of Rent feel fresh. Greif is very clear: This isn't a copy of the Broadway mounting. "When I was asked if I wanted to direct this revival, I said yes, provided I could reexamine it in some ways," he says. "Although we only made minor tweaks to the songs, physically it's very different, and most of the changes stem from that. The staging is different because the set is different. I'm working with a new choreographer. And [the narrator] Mark's filmmaking is a more overt part of the action."

Lest fans worry that this will be Rent 2.0, set in the age of flip cams and Facebook, Greif is staying true to the original setting. "We actually state the time and place more concretely than we did before; we say that it's December 24, 1991," Greif says. "It has to be a period piece because of the psychology of the characters. The piece is very much of its time, and I think you'd rob it of some of its truth and urgency if you tried to set it now. Frankly, I wouldn't understand what [HIV-positive lovers] Mimi and Roger were doing in 2011! But I remember how people responded to news of an infection in those days."

It's been 15 years since Rent creator Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on the day his musical was scheduled to start previews at NYTW, so for Greif this revival is bittersweet. "It's really complicated emotionally," he says. "Everything brings up incredibly fond memories and sad memories." This production also brings the show's journey full circle: Rent started downtown, went to the Main Stem and now it's back Off Broadway—albeit in a commercial midtown theater as opposed to an East Village nonprofit.

This time, Rent probably won't spark the same kind of frenzy or launch careers of the likes of Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs (the current cast is made up of emerging pros), but Greif thinks the vibe will be reminiscent of the NYTW days. "It's great to be in a small room again," he says. "The show sort of bursts at the seams the way it did back then."

Rent is playing at New World Stages.

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