Rent Musical Returns to New York

A beloved show's off-broadway revival.

“I think we’re gonna be able to find 3,000 a week who still wanna see Rent,” said Mr. Seller.

It’s Mr. Greif’s job to make sure the new actors, most of whom were children when the play first opened, exploit their closeness to the crowd. Taking a break from rehearsals to chat in the lime-green chairs that line the lobby outside the theater, the director showed the natural energy with which he has sustained interest in this show for so long.

Mr. Greif has curly hair, a Santa Claus-esque twinkle in his eye, and no less love for Rent than when he first helped Mr. Larson hammer out the plot in the mid-1990s. After years visiting the theater once or twice a month to help new actors find their groove in what was by then a smoothly-running machine, he has found starting from scratch energizing.

“It’s unusual and wonderful and reminds me of times long ago when I was really in the thick of it,” he said. “There were things that I wanted to do differently over the years. Songs I wanted to reimagine. I wanted them to tell a different kind of story.”

The tweaks are slight. Even cutting three lines from a single song required consultation with Mr. Larson’s estate, and the only addition to the script has been to change the opening line—“December 24,”—to “December 24, 1991.” That and a few other changes, like the grungy, elaborate set and some video projections of East Village street scenes and commercials from the early ’90s, were necessary to conjure up a world that, when the play first opened, was right outside the New York Theatre Workshop’s door.

Rent could have ironically been a gentrifying agent,” said Heidi Grumelot, the Artistic Director of the Horse Trade Theater Group on East Fourth Street. She praised the play, but lamented, “It would be really nice if there were as much interest in new plays and musicals that are as well written as Rent.”

Mr. Larson’s Alphabet City is long gone, and some of the problems he addressed have receded into the past. In an email, East Village chronicler E.V. Grieve imagined updating the story to reflect the modern concerns of the neighborhood’s young residents.

“Those lines!” he wrote. “Lines everywhere! Sunday brunch at Poco because they can’t get into Beauty & Essex. Saturday drink-and-down at the Sunburnt Cow! Luke’s Lobster on Thursday night! Lines for the food truck extravaganza at Governors Island! And why doesn’t Groupon have deals for places people actually want to go to?”

Parts of Rent are amusingly dated, like “La Vie Boheme,” the Act I finale whose praise for “yoga, yogurt” and “hand-crafted beers” seems to have predicted the St. Mark’s fro-yo infestation. Songs about the AIDS epidemic, on the other hand, are more grimly rooted in their time period.

“Now in some ways I feel there are a lot of people lulled into thinking that being H.I.V.-positive is like having cirrhosis,” said Mr. Nicola. “That you can just have a magic pill and you’re going to live your life forever. But there are people on the face of the planet for whom it is a death sentence, who are not living with AIDS but are dying with AIDS.”

Mr. Nicola wondered, whether Mr. Larson, were he writing today, would have felt the need to end the play with Mimi, dead from a combination of cold, heroin abuse and AIDS, miraculously returning to life. That happy ending was an attempt to provide positivity in a dark time. Now that AIDS is easier to overlook, Mr. Nicola speculated, the playwright may have preferred a more tragic ending.

In a future revival, produced by people who did not know Mr. Larson, Mimi might remain dead. Those producers might cut songs, discard the body mics and restrain the band, in an effort to make Rent a quieter, darker show. But for now, the play stays in the hands of those who first made a hit out of what Mr. Nicola called “an opera of life,” and this crew thinks that continuity—with a few careful changes—is the recipe for another long run.

During the early preview’s intermission, Rentheads milled in the lobby, dissecting the play that they know so well.

“They changed just enough,” gushed one. “But they left the rest the same.”


Rent Musical Returns to New York