At the August 24 press preview for the 20th anniversary tour of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical Rent, the cast performed the iconic second-act opener “Seasons of Love” starting in a circle formation, holding hands. Members of the press were caught off guard by the staging, as it is customary that Act II start in a straight line.
So, when the tour launches September 12 in Bloomington, IN, is that how “Seasons” will start? “I don’t know yet,” explains director Evan Ensign. “I did that only because we’re only a week-and-a-half into rehearsals, and we just staged it, but I [thought that] what the press never gets to see [or] anybody who doesn’t do the show doesn’t see [is] that’s always our beginning [in rehearsal]. That ‘Seasons’ circle is us together…”
He adds that “every time you do Rent with a different group, it changes—partly because of what they bring to it—and this one will be slightly different.”
The 20th anniversary tour is a non-Equity production comprised of actors in their early twenties, most of whom saw Rent for the first time by watching the 2005 film. Get to know the eight leads here.
“There are slight little things we’re doing to the staging,” says Ensign, “just to engage [the audience] slightly differently ... [but also] to clarify some story and things like that.”
Marlies Yearby, who was Tony-nominated for her original choreography of the 1996 production on Broadway, is back, and she’s also making slight tweaks to how the piece moves because she “can’t help” herself, she says.
“It’s a new palate,” she explains. “Certainly, we were attracted to [the cast] for the way they embody the character, but also I was very attracted to them because of who they are as themselves and their authentic selves and how they approach that character. As a result, as an example, Christian [Thompson] is the first Benny that I played with that, in his body, he has straight movement. He comes from that place, so I’m kind of tantalized a little bit to see how that lives in this version.”
Without taking Rent out of its period, director Ensign and choreographer Yearby explain that they will pull from today’s popular culture to enhance and influence how this 2016 version of Rent breathes.
“We can’t suddenly become contemporary,” says Ensign, “but we can utilize things—technology. Our lighting design is going to be completely different because we’re going to be using moving lights that didn’t exist back then [in 1996]. We need to be true to our time, but we also are here and alive and participating in [the show] knowing the latter, so we’re trying to marry both. It’s not only about finding that the piece is relevant to politics today and racial issues that are going on today, but those things really start to connect with us in a different way, and we have a cast that comes at it from a whole different point of view than we did 18 or 20 years ago because of what was going on then. There’s aspects of this play that they don’t even know, and we have to talk a lot about, but they find things in their own lives that relate to it, and we are having lots of those discussions. It’s beautiful.”
In terms of what exactly will be different, Ensign admits, “I don’t want to give things away. Some of it, we’re actually still talking about. … We might start Act II slightly differently. We might start Act I slightly differently.”
As for its look, the show’s original costumer Angela Wendt, who also costumed the 2011 Off-Broadway revival at New World Stages, is also designing the look for the tour.
“At this point, I’m really happy that I had a chance to change everything and then some, which I did Off-Broadway,” she says, “so now I feel at liberty to keep what I really liked because I had a chance to change everything. But there’s a few select ones that I like to play with, notably there’s a Santa update. You know, [the coat Angel wears in] ‘La Vie Boheme’—slight changes—and with the ensemble, I always see what kind of people they cast to make it look authentic. I need to play a bit.”
As for “Seasons of Love,” says the director, “Actually, watching it today, I came up with a whole other thought. We’re playing!”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.