By LINDA BUCHWALD
When Rent opened in 1996, AIDS was very much in the public eye. Time magazine's "Person of the Year" was AIDS researcher David Ho, and new drug treatments were helping AIDS patients live longer. Those milestones underscored the musical's message that someone could live with (and not just die from) the disease, and that message helped the musical become such a culturally relevant phenomenon.
Fifteen years later, Rent's legacy includes 5,124 performances at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, where it ran until 2008; four Tony awards; a Pulitzer Prize for composer Jonathan Larson; and even a dedicated fan base known as Rent-heads.
But can the phenomenon continue? Can Rent mean something in New York City in 2011, when issues like gay marriage have taken center stage and AIDS, though still uncured, no longer dominates the public conversation?
It's time to find out. Three years after closing on Broadway, Rent is back in a new off-Broadway production at New World Stages. Michael Greif, who directed the original, is also helming the revival, and he is eager to help new theatregoers discover the show. "I certainly always missed the opportunity for people, especially young people, to see it live onstage," he says.
He acknowledges that Rent is a product of its time. A rock update of Puccini's La Boheme, it follows a group of young artists and musicians on the Lower East Side in the early 1990s. They grapple with love, sex, community, ambition, and poverty, and several of them---including the male and female leads---have AIDS. "I feel like what an HIV status meant in '92 is very different from what it means in 2011, and I think the characters' psychologies are true to what those diagnoses meant at that time," Greif says
Still, as the recent revivals of Angels in America and The Normal Heart have shown, work about the early days of the AIDS crisis can still find an audience, and not necessarily because it deals with the disease. "It's great dramatic literature," says Greif, who also directed the <i>Angels</i> remount. "They're great plays about enormous issues—personal, political issues. I think those plays will always be successful because they're great plays."
To that end, he's confident that younger audiences seeing <i>Rent</i> for the first time will connect to the show: "I think they'll relate to it the way young people always relate to it. It's about a group of friends who are there for one another and get [each other] through life and death situations. It's about building a family out of your peer group, and I think in many ways that's always been its enormous appeal to young people who are just about to make their way out in the world and start families of their own and families in very non-traditional senses of the word."
Those who remember the original Rent won't be seeing a replica of the Broadway original. The version at New World Stages boasts a new set (designed by Mark Wendland), choreography (by Larry Keigwin), and cast. And while Greif has kept some of his original staging, much of it has been reimagined. "There was a new physical production, and any wonderful group of actors really does keep it fresh for me, too," he says. "There were a lot of new ways to tell the story and to depict events, which I think is what a lot of directing is."
Linda Buchwald is a writer based in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @PataphysicalSci