For some hit shows, moving off-Broadway after a groundbreaking around-the-world run seems questionable. But the cast and creative team of the new production of "Rent" insist their new revival feels more like a homecoming than a defeat.
After all, the original production of Jonathan Larson's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical was first staged at the New York Theatre Workshop in early 1996 before taking up residence on Broadway for a staggering 12 years, as well as playing to packed houses across the globe.
And while a mere three years (or 1,576,800 minutes, in "Renthead" speak) have passed since the Broadway production closed, the revival, which opens Aug. 11 at New World Stages, marks the first time the show's creative team has been able to freshen up its staging with new costumes, improved visuals and a revamped set that heightens the sense of gritty claustrophobia found in the East Village, circa 1991. The 2011 version of the musical -- a loose re-telling of "La Boheme" which tackles themes of drug addiction, poverty and HIV/AIDS -- has the added bonus of director Michael Greif, who helmed the original production and was a close friend of Larson's prior to the composer's untimely 1996 death.
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"I really felt like I wanted to experiment with being able to tell the story somewhat differently," said Greif, who recently directed the Broadway hit "Next to Normal" as well as last year's off-Broadway revival of "Angels in America." "In seeing it over the years, I was anxious to have that opportunity. I'm hoping we're staying very true to the material and still presenting it in a poetic way."
Not that reviving a show that electrified a generation didn't come with its own set of unique challenges -- and while some numbers ("Seasons of Love," "La Vie Boheme") appear similar to the original production, others ("What You Own") have been drastically re-conceived. "We walked this fine line of paying homage to the original piece and what has happened before, and re-discovering the text and re-examining what can happen in the story to tell it more efficiently," said actress Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Maureen. "It's both fascinating and artistically challenging."
Still, whether or not the show's then-groundbreaking portrayal of HIV-positive characters will remain relevant for a fresh crowd of theatergoers remains to be seen. "To a 16-year-old nowadays, AIDS is certainly more distant," said Peter Nigrini, who produced the colorful projections which appear throughout many of the show's numbers. "I think maybe we've reached some sort of historical distance where it's possible to reflect on that. So while a lot has changed, the bigger themes -- consumerism, capitalism, living a life as an artist -- are still very relevant."
So while a boutique-free East Village still accessible to struggling artists as seen in the show may be a thing of the past, the pop concert-like squeals that greeted the opening of Act II during one early preview indicate the "Renthead" audience is alive and well. And what would Larson, who died from an undiagnosed aneurysm on the eve of the original's first off-Broadway preview, think of the new production? "I would love for him to just explode with pride," said Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays Mark. "I think somewhere he knows what an impact it's had, not only on the theater community, but also on the world…how we talk about homosexuality, how we address the AIDS crisis. He should doing nothing but beaming with pride."