To Passion, When It's New

As I've written about here before, for a long time, I didn't want to work on Rent. I was convinced that any changes to Michael Greif's original conception and staging would be blasphemous. But then Greif himself remounted the show in 2011, and blasphemed himself by taking an entirely different approach to the show's conception and staging.

After I saw the 2011 revival of Rent, I was reminded of an interview with Jerry Zaks about his masterful 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. He said his whole team agreed from the beginning that they would forget that Guys and Dolls was a classic, arguably a masterpiece of musical comedy. Instead, they treated it as if it were a new piece that had been sent to them for production. Every choice was wide open. The only blueprint was the words and music. And the results were amazing, as different from the original as the two Rents were, but like the Rents, equally brilliant.

The reverse is also true, why most productions of Show Boat and anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein usually suck. People try to direct and design and act in "classics" instead of stories. They over-venerate the material. Usually (though not always), it takes a foreign director to make those shows work again, someone who's not crippled by that veneration. It's the same reason so many productions of Shakespeare suck. They think they're doing "masterpieces" instead of sex comedies and thrillers.

I knew that was the key with Rent. I could not direct a Pulitzer Prize winning theatre piece by a dead, young genius. It would overpower me. I had to come at the show without reverence. That's what had held me back all those years, not wanting to work on this show, not wanting to tamper with the perfection of the original. I had to come at this show like it's a brand new piece I've found, that no one else has ever produced before.

Because I love Rent so deeply and because that first experience seeing the original cast on Broadway was so artistically life-altering for me, I assumed that even with my new, Zen-like approach to the show, some moments would end up looking like the original, despite my intentions. In fact, I even planned originally to stage "Seasons of Love" exactly like Michael Greif did in the original production, as a sort of tribute, in that famous line across the front of the stage. But now that we're done blocking the show, I don't think there's a single moment that looks like the original. I decided Greif's "Seasons of Love" line didn't fit the rest of our show, as masterful and meaningful as it was in its original context. So ours will be different.

Ultimately, I found a clear path right through this story, but it wasn't the same path Michael Greif took.

So how will New Line's Rent be different, I hear you ask? In a lot of small, tiny ways, just because we have a lot of really interesting, playful actors who are already finding so many cool little details that define their characters. I see relationships developing among the lovers, and they're all slightly different from what we've seen before. We intentionally departed from the usual types with many of the characters, both in look and in personality.

Marshall is giving us a much funnier, more vulnerable Tom Collins. Luke's Angel is less Puck and more stylish zen master. Shawn's Benny is much less of an asshole, and instead just a guy who wants different things than his friends – which I find a lot more compelling.

Sarah's giving us a much funnier – and weirdly charming – Maureen. In a way, this Maureen is closer to the Drapes in Cry-Baby than to other Maureens I've seen. This Maureen is not mean, just fully armored emotionally (which also means selfish), and prepared to return fire if she's attacked. There's real damage there, a base assumption that the world will shit on her unless she's got her fists up. Like Larry and Joanne in Company, here in our Rent, Joanne is the only one who can see the real, vulnerable Maureen inside the cocky badass.

And Joanne and Mark have become buddies as we've staged the show, to Maureen's great displeasure. Which I love.

Cody's Joanne may be closest to the original, among our leads, but Cody's given Joanne such heart and some steel balls when she stands up to Maureen. Their confrontations work so well because both characters are such strong women -- without being bitches. Cody and Sarah have also really found Maureen and Joanne's love later in the show, which is very cool.

Evan's Roger is less sure of himself, more vulnerable, more fragile. Anna's Mimi has much more insecurity and damage underneath the bravada and aggressiveness. And Jeremy brings to Mark a kind of detached amusement that's really fun in Act I, and then in Act II, it fades as everything turns to shit and reveals the vulnerable kid inside, the kid who's been hiding behind his camera. Even this early in rehearsals, Jeremy's found a really subtle, interesting take on Mark. I don't know if it just happened by instinct or he's been working on it, but it doesn't matter to me.

There will be more concrete ways our Rent is different – different acting choices, different blocking, different scenic, lighting, and costume designs. The giant, raked moon platform in the middle of our set forced us into some really different choices. But some differences seemed obvious. Instead of Mimi starting "Out Tonight" really far away from the audience, in our production, she'll be inches from the front row. Our "Contact" is very different, more subtle, less aggressive, more of a link tonally between "Without You" and the reprise of "I'll Cover You." The cops in Act I will be in the Fourth Wall (i.e., imaginary), which I think makes them even more of a looming presence. By necessity (but now that we've seen this, we love it), Benny's investor at the Life Cafe is Joanne's father instead of Benny's father-in-law. We had to have the same actor play both roles because of our cast size, and as we were struggling with how to distinguish the two men, it occurred to me that maybe we don't have to. Having Mr. Jefferson at the table has created some wonderful, funny, uncomfortable moments between him and Joanne (we decided he's never met Maureen before this).

And there will also be some abstract differences – tone, energy, etc. Rent is a hybrid of rock concert and theatre. I think the original production leaned more toward the rock concert, and we're leaning more toward the storytelling.

I don't think die-hard Rent fans will mind these differences. We're not changing music or lyrics. In fact, in some cases, we're singing closer to what Larson wrote than the original cast did. Hopefully, our show will be as exciting for Rent fans as it was for me seeing that completely reconceived 2011 revival. I cannot wait to share this wonderful show!

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Long live the Musical!