Since 1996, the musical Rent has entered the musical theater pantheon, won a Pulitzer, and been praised, parodied, and panned (when it made its way to the screen). Now, three years after the show closed its Broadway run after 12 years in 2008, a revival is in previews at New World Stages off-Broadway, and is set to open August 11.
Surely, you know the story. Rent is the work of rising talent Jonathan Larson, who died suddenly just before its off-Broadway opening; the show is about a group of friends in the East Village, many of whom suffer from HIV/AIDS.
When the Broadway run was gearing up to close, Campbell Robertson wrote in the New York Times that “much of ‘Rent’ has become downright nostalgic, almost jarringly so.” Here at Runnin’ Scared we enjoy our share of nostalgia for the old East Village. As the show returns to off-Broadway, we decided to get a couple of its veterans who are working on the revival to share their thoughts. Here are excerpts of our conversations with director Michael Greif and costume designer Angela Wendt, both of whom worked on the original.
Michael Greif, Director
What are the biggest differences in the East Village since the show premiered in 1996?
Actually, the big difference is not really about the East Village, it’s about HIV treatments in terms of the psychology of the characters. The real heart of the piece has always been that Jonathan wrote it in honor of some friends he believed were dying, some who had died. The psychologies of the characters are very much a part of that time in New York when an HIV diagnosis really did or could be a death sentence. This was before anyone started seeing beneficial results of any medications or treatments. AZT, at least when Jonathan was working on the show, was a new development, but certainly not a successful development. So the characters’ psyches are caught up with learning that their time on the planet might be very limited.
As for the changes to the East Village, in many ways by the time we were doing the show in ’95 they were already very much in process. The Bowery Bar was around in 1995, so the Bowery certainly was changing and other parts of the East Village were changing. One of the inspirations for Jonathan was the police action in Tompkins Square Park, the riots in that park. All of that had already begun when we were doing the play the first time. I feel like in a lot of ways there’s just been a continuation.
Is Rent a period piece now?
Yeah, the show is of a time and place, and like other great plays, there’s an awful lot of universality. I don’t think it becomes any less relevant because it was of a time and a place. Many of the issues it’s dealing with are extremely relevant. But I would have a hard time believing in a former front man in a band who got an HIV diagnosis in 2011 and thought the only thing he could do was start writing some good material because he was going to be dead in a matter of months. That’s really the big change I see.
If you were writing the piece now, would you set it in the East Village?
I didn’t set it in the East Village. Jonathan did. He’s the only person who could answer that question.
Are elements of the “La Vie Bohème” culture still visible in New York?
You see it in other parts of the city, certainly — the parts of the city where people who are playing in bands and getting out of college live in New York. It’s probably not the East Village. What still is real is that people come to New York from other parts of this country to pursue their dreams, and that’s very much what this group of kids is doing.
The climate is so different in the city with HIV treatment. Do you think that impacts how people view the show?
What they are probably zeroing in on is the way this group of young people forms a nontraditional family unit, the way they take care of one another, the estrangement they feel from their own real families. Those things were very true then and are still true now. We’re getting a very young audience, which is thrilling. I think they recognize some of their own lives in the lives onstage.
Angela Wendt, Costume Designer
How has the change in the neighborhood affected your work as a costume designer on the show?
First of all, now it’s a period piece to us. We set it in 1990, because the East Village hadn’t changed that much yet. There were quite a few changes already from the ’80s in terms of squats and the neighborhood and people moving in. But at this point the neighborhood is a completely different story, and my inspiration is completely in looking back at the time again.
Is there anything that gives you inspiration in the current neighborhood?
There are still artists in the neighborhood or at least coming to hang out in the neighborhood, since they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood. Tompkins Square Park is still alive and kicking with rock concerts and the HOWL! Festival and things like that. You still see punks, the whole punk look, just like you saw 20 years ago and 30 years ago. There’s definitely still inspiration in the clothing and energy of young artists. They may not be based in the East Village so much. Most are in Bushwick or had to move further out of the city.
What’s it like redoing the show now that the culture is so different?
When I did it the first time I could have done it with my eyes closed, because I moved to the East Village in the early ’80s. Now there is more distance to it; you have to look back and see it as a period piece. Mind you, we have always, even at the time, looked at contemporary culture in terms of the clothing and what we wear, the silhouette and things like that. But with HIV treatment…I think that’s the biggest point where it is a period piece because that is just so different now. People were dying of AIDS; at this point they are not anymore.