Last night I saw my last show before coming home today, the off Broadway revival of Rent.
I was a little wary of this one. I saw the original production just a few weeks after it moved to Broadway in 1996, and it was one of the most thrilling theatre experiences of my life. This was before a recording had been released, so I knew very little about the show. And it blew my freaking mind. It was so defiantly unlike anything else in the musical theatre, even though (on closer inspection) it uses many traditional musical theatre devices.
Its rawness and naked honestly was amazing. (I still think had Larson not died, and had he gone on to further polish the show, it might have ended up less than it is now.) Rent quickly became one of my favorite shows ever.
This is the baggage I brought with me to the performance last night.
And you know what?
I loved it.
It's incredibly different from the original -- the only piece of staging that remains is "Seasons of Love," which was the perfect moment to pay tribute to the original. But every other moment and every character interpretation was so different.
And yet, it gave me exactly the same thrill, the same profound emotions, the same joy. It's as if the original production was a 1990s musical capturing the zeitgeist and this revival is a 21st century musical about the 1990s. It really feels like a different show now. This Rent speaks to this moment just like the original Rent spoke to its moment. This creative team found a way to tell this story in today's terms without violating it for a second. And here's the real shocker -- both productions were directed by Michael Greif!
After so many years of the original memory fading a bit, after seeing too many other productions reproduce the original but with lesser results, I think my love for Rent had waned a bit. But this new production fixed that. I can't count the number of times tears welled up in my eyes, only a few times in sadness, but more often in the kind of pure fucking joy that only great theatre can supply.
And on reflection, with time admittedly obscuring the original a bit, it seems this production may have better acting, more subtle, complex characterizations than the original. These characters also seem younger than the originals did, more vulnerable, which makes their stories much more powerful and the stakes higher, and I think that supercharges both the sadness and the joy of this beautiful story. Maureen is funnier and realer, Mark (Michael Wartella at this performance) is more vulnerable and even more the emotional outsider, Roger is more damaged, Joanne is stronger, Mimi is more aggressive. It's as if the original production hired great rock singers who could act, but this one hired great actors who could sing rock and roll. The difference is subtle, but it's real.
Like the set for Bonnie & Clyde, the Rent set looks simple but isn't. It performs some cool stage tricks but never pulls the focus away from the actors. It's a full-stage sculpture of scaffolding, some pieces moving from time to time, with fire escape stairs, a wrap-around balcony, and other cool stuff, clearly discarding the fierce physical minimalism of the original. And they use a lot of projections, video, etc. (which, I gotta say, I could do without). But not only did it look cool, it sounded cool whenever they moved it or used it, giving the whole thing a very urban, downtown, rock club kind of vibe.
I've never directed Rent because I always thought there was essentially just one way to approach it -- the original seemed so fucking perfect. I didn't want to imitate it but i didn't want to lessen its perfection either. But this new approach is perfect too. Maybe this production will finally rescue Rent from a million lesser reproductions of the original. And maybe, just maybe, I might be ready to tackle it soon...
Not next season, but soon...
Long Live the Musical!
P.S. Here's my background and analysis essay about Rent, from my 2001 book Rebels With Applause.
P.P.S. See also my thoughts on Follies, Lysistrata Jones, Bonnie & Clyde, and The Blue Flower.