This summer, Rent returns to its New York roots, recycling Broadway's seventh longest-running show at New World Stages at reduced, Off-Broadway prices. It first bowed 46 blocks south at New York Theatre Workshop on Jan. 24, 1996 — one day after its 35-year-old author died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. That tragedy obscured the silver linings that followed — the Tonys, the Pulitzer Prize, a move uptown for a 12½-year run. When it gave its 5,124th, and final, show at the Nederlander in the fall of '08, it began with the same sad words that it started with: "Like we did when we opened, we dedicate this performance to Jonathan Larson."
"The irony and the tragedy of Jonathan's death are unequalled," says Michael Greif, then and now Rent's Tony-nominated director. "To work with someone for years, to know this is their lifelong dream and to not be able to share in the success of it was an extraordinary and, I hope, singular experience. He wrote this piece in honor of friends and loved ones who died. It ended up being in honor of his life, too."
Rent began not with a bang but with a tick, tick . . . BOOM!, which, in its embryonic state in the fall of 1990, was still a rock monologue Larson was performing himself at Second Stage. A young booking agent named Jeffrey Seller caught the act and wrote him the next day, "I would like to produce your shows."
What Seller had in mind was a modern take on Don Giovanni called Don Juan, but "by '91, Jonathan told me he was working on this modern-day reincarnation of La Boheme that would take place in the East Village, where Mimi would be suffering from the modern-day equivalent of tuberculosis, AIDS.
"The first reading of it was done in the spring of '93 at NYTW, which did a workshop that Michael directed in the fall of '94. That was the moment Kevin [McCollum, his partner at The Booking Office] and I signed up and forged a partnership with NYTW. It was like jumping into the Grand Canyon. Our lawyers said that we were crazy." Joining them in the jump (despite the slight fact he is, technically, the villain of the piece — a landlord) was Allan S. Gordon. "I was on the board of NYTW and saw what was happening to the show," he recalls. What he saw was catnip for the young and the young-at-heart: "There's an illusion that it's all young people in the audience. That's really not true. People relate to it. It's about your life's experiences — the trials and tribulations of growing up and facing obstacles. It transcends generations."
So what has brought it back to this generation? "Avenue Q," answers Seller. "When Kevin and I, with our partner Robyn Goodman, decided to move Avenue Q Off-Broadway — and I give full credit to Kevin for that because I did not originally think it was a good idea, but he dragged me along — we recouped in eight weeks, and I wound up saying, ‘Well, you were right.' No one had ever done anything like that before — move a Tony-winning musical that had played six years on Broadway to Off-Broadway — so the next obvious question was, 'Well, shall we re-open Rent?' We still had the rights. It was like having a sporting player we wanted to put back on the field. Allan said yes so we went to Michael, who said he'd love to. But I didn't feel we should do the old Rent and stick it on the stage."
Greif agreed. "Over the years that I've watched the show, there were things I wanted to change," he admits. "When we did it internationally or for tours, I made changes. This seemed like a chance for an overhaul. Working with a new choreographer, on a new set with new costumes and a new projection design, really invigorated me."
Al Larson, father of the songwriter, confesses he's "personally very curious to see Michael's restaging. In my very limited world, I think we had a piece of perfection."
He has already checked out the new cast and is encouraged by that: "I was there for the initial rehearsal so I got to meet these kids. When I say 'kids,' I mean kids. Some were in diapers when the show started, and none was far into elementary school, so Michael, I and others tried to give them a sense of what it was like in the '80s."
Larson's legacy goes beyond grants given in his name by the American Theatre Wing to emerging composers, lyricists and book writers. Seller contends he changed the face of Broadway: "People asked when Rent debuted if it'd usher in a whole new era of rock musicals. That really wasn't true, but what is true is it ushered in an era where producers were doing things on Broadway that were not conventional.
"I believe there'd be no Urinetown or Spring Awakening on Broadway, were it not for Rent succeeding. You could even argue there would be no Avenue Q or In the Heights if Rent hadn't given Kevin and me the resources to keep going, developing new works that were risky and different."