If you've been wondering what kind of clout it took for California's La Jolla Playhouse to land the West Coast premiere of the hit musical phenomenon Rent, you need look no further than to its 37-year-old ambitious artistic director, Michael Greif. After all, he was the director who nurtured the musical about East Village bohemians by the late Jonathan Larson at the non-profit New York Theatre Workshop, the production that later became the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning production, now in its second year on Broadway. Given its phenomenal success, it's now hard to imagine that Rent was once the work of an unknown writer, featuring a cast of unknowns and dealing with new and tough themes. As such, it is a perfect centerpiece for the 50th anniversary season of the La Jolla Playhouse, which began on May 13 with The Importance of Being Earnest and The School for Wives and continues on its two stages with Rent (through Sept. 14), Donald Margulies's The Model Apartment (through August 24), Having Our Say (Sept. 9-Oct. 12) and Barry Manilow's new musical, Harmony (Oct. 7-Nov. 23).
"Rent is wonderfully emblematic of how the non-profit arena, taking risks and challenging the audience, can develop new work, which can take an important place in modern dramatic literature," says Greif. "Rent lays the groundwork, and I think that Donald's play [The Model Apartment], which is a tough and unsentimental work about an American family, will also challenge the audience in an exciting way."
The Playhouse was founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer as a place where movie stars could stretch their stage muscles in a conducive environment close to Hollywood. Such stars as Groucho Marx, Lee Marvin, Tallulah Bankhead and Vivian Vance (she was discovered there by Desi Arnaz to play Ethel Mertz in the "I Love Lucy" series) took advantage of the opportunity over the years. In fact, this season's revival of The Importance of Being Earnest was a nod to that history, as Ferrer and McGuire were in a 1949 production of the Oscar Wilde comedy. But Greif says that he is more connected to the revival of the La Jolla Playhouse in 1983 headed by Des McAnuff, for whom he worked as an assistant and whom he succeeded as artistic director three years ago.
McAnuff brought a credo of innovative interpretations of classics and development of new plays and musicals to the Playhouse. In fact, he himself directed Big River, The Who's Tommy and the Matthew Broderick revival of How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying and raised the Playhouse's profile on the Broadway scene, where it was honored with the 1993 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Since taking over, Greif has built on McAnuff's considerable record and has been especially eager to expand an audience that has in the past invariably skewed toward the demographics‹white, older, wealthy‹which are a reflection of the affluent Southern California community in which it finds itself.
"A theatre is programming, and we've always been a bit more ambitious, ridiculously so, than other [regional theatres], and I'm very proud of that legacy," says Greif, laughing a bit. "If we can keep up this kind of unpredictability, I think we'll be able to continue crossing boundaries into different segments of the San Diego community with even greater success than we have in the past. The season really reflects that desire, and there is another project on the horizon which deals with tensions created by local, historic and contemporary issues which, if we can achieve it, can have strong appeal as well. We are dreaming along those lines."