Life Before and After ‘Rent’

Life Before and After ‘Rent’

August 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Too preoccupied with our own monthly dues, many of us have forgotten that the rock musical “Rent closed its 12-year run on Broadway in 2008 and skipped town for three years. But the Tony Award-winning show (and the ninth-longest running show in Broadway history) returns to its off-Broadway roots on Aug. 11.

Somehow the show’s new location at New World Stages on West 50th Street doesn’t seem as far off-Broadway as when it first opened in the East Village in 1996.

The musical by the late Jonathan Larson is still guided by the original director Michael Greif, but it’s been updated with multimedia projections (Peter Nigrini) and new choreography (Larry Keigwin), costumes (Angela Wendt) and a set (Mark Wendland) that’s been described as an “urban jungle gym.”

The show remains firmly set in New York City’s East Village of the early 1990s, and its return is an occasion to reflect on that neighborhood, AIDS and homelessness, all fixtures of the groundbreaking musical that used Puccini’s tragic “La Boheme” as its template.

James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, hosted Larson’s fledgling musical for two years as it developed into its off-Broadway debut in the ’90s at his theater on East 4th Street. As to subsequent gentrification in the East Village, he commented, “By the time ‘Rent’ happened, the East Village that it depicts was to some extent mythological. Overall, I think it was reference to a past or a community already transitioning. I think the big difference is that this has become a neighborhood for tourism. Middle class people are not afraid of it anymore.”

Artist Ryan Gilliam was part of the East Village’s transition in the 1970s. “The East Village then was a meeting of local culture — primarily Latino — and poverty, starting to get mixed up with artists in their early 20s. These artists, like me, weren’t  trying to change the neighborhood, we were just trying to find a place where we could afford the rent. The people who came afterwards did change it,” she said.

"Rent's" updated set has been described as an "urban jungle gym." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Gilliam rehabilitated a city-owned “mess of a building” at 64 East 4th Street that is today home to three arts groups and part of the East Fourth Street Cultural District, one of three official cultural districts in New York City. Her Obie Award-winning troupe, Downtown Art, was founded in 1988 and now works with teens, primarily from the East Village and Lower East Side.

“Almost all the teens have seen ‘Rent’ and love it as a musical and piece of theater. I don’t think a lot of them see themselves in it,” Gilliam said.

Moving to the city and leading a bohemian life is not on those young actors’ minds, as it might be for the new audiences who are expected to fill “Rent’s” seats — 20-somethings who grew up listening to the “Rent” cast album.

Matt Shingledecker as "Roger" and Adam Chanler-Berat as "Mark." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Surviving with HIV is a radical change  since “Rent” was written, and with that promising development, society’s perception of the threat of AIDS. Four main characters in “Rent” are HIV positive­.

“When we were working with Jonathan on the piece, one of his most important thoughts was that Mimi should live in the end. It was a specific point for the time — that being diagnosed with HIV was not a death sentenc,” Nicola recalled. “By this point in our history, we need to remind our larger community that people are dying of AIDS still. There are people who are HIV-infected and not getting the treatment. It’s not so simple as taking a few pills and you’ll be fine.”

Projection designer Peter Nigrini also spoke about AIDS in our interview with him at New World Stages.

“It’s interesting that ‘Next to Normal‘ was revived (it went in quick succession from off-Broadway to Broadway). And ‘Angels in America‘ was just revived. The three of these theater pieces are about AIDS,” Nigrini said.

“There is something in the Zeitgeist right now — maybe we’re distant enough from it. The audience is much younger than the original audiences were. What is their understanding of AIDS? I don’t think we’re back to ‘La Boheme’s’ consumption,” and here he quizzically mimics, “‘What is that?’ If only we were that removed from AIDS, but we’re not.”

When Jonathan Larson died of an aortic tear at the age of 35 the night before “Rent’s” first preview off-Broadway, the producers vowed to make sure as many people know who Jonathan Larson is as possible. Repeating that vow 15 years later, producer Kevin McCollum adds, “The world has profoundly changed but the issues that ‘Rent’ deals with has not, so it’s timeless.”