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Musical 'Rent' returns to New York in a new smaller home with a new cast but the same
NEW YORK (AP) ' Adam Chanler-Berat is asked if he knows how many minutes there are in a year. He doesn't hesitate.
"Something like 525, 600 rings true," he says with a smile.
No, he's not a math whiz, just a "Rent" fan.
Though he was only about 10 when Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking musical made it to Broadway in 1996, Chanler-Berat saw it at least four times and soaked up the cast album countless times. Fans like that don't forget how a year is measured in the musical's crowd-pleasing song "Seasons of Love."
"For me, it was the defining rock musical of my generation," says Chanler-Berat, who grew up to become a stage actor. "It was the first show that I can remember that really spoke to me and what I felt like was my generation."
This month, Chanler-Berat is fulfilling a childhood dream by joining a new off-Broadway revival of the show just three years after "Rent" tearfully closed up shop on Broadway.
The new production has been entrusted to Michael Greif, who also instantly knows how many minutes are in a year: He directed the show's original off-Broadway production, helmed its Tony-winning run on Broadway and has directed most of its touring companies.
"I'm really happy I have the opportunity to bring it back," says Greif, who after "Rent" went on to direct "Next to Normal" and "Grey Gardens" on Broadway. "Even in the few years that it was gone, people were saying 'Oh, I wish it were back.'"
Larson's tale of free-spirited artists and street people in a gritty drug- and AIDS-plagued East Village of the early 1990s was inspired by Puccini's "La Boheme" and found a ready-made audience in young people. Larson never lived to see his triumph: He died at age 35 of an aortic aneurism after its final dress rehearsal in January 1996.
"Rent" lasted on Broadway for 12 years and more than 5,000 performances, launching the careers of Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who reunited for a 2005 film version.
"Thank God there's a new cast doing the show in New York," says Martin, who went on to star on NBC's "Law & Order" and last year in "The Merchant of Venice" on Broadway. "I think it was a bit of shame that the show closed on Broadway in the first place. I'm looking forward to see what happens."
The new production, which opens Aug. 11, has found a home in one of the 499-seat theaters at New World Stages on 50th Street, a complex that has offered other former Broadway shows such as "Avenue Q" and "Million Dollar Quartet" a lifeline. The new space has given Greif a chance to "reconceive" and "reimagine" the show.
"I walked in and it felt like a great home for it. It felt like a great scale for it. There are plenty of things that feel very much the same in a different environment and other things that we know we have the opportunity to rethink," says Greif.
"I hope the heart and the soul and the wit of the show are very much the same. The show was always about an adopted family learning how to care for one another and I think that's what the show still is."
Besides the new cast, there's also a new set designer in Mark Wendland ' who has created a labyrinth of fire escapes and metal boxes ' and a new choreographer in Larry Keigwin, who says he was eager to take advantage of the new theater and set.
"It feels like an urban jungle gym," says Keigwin, the artistic director of Keigwin & Company who has worked on the off-Broadway musical "The Wild Party" and with the Radio City Rockettes. "No one is flipping or anything, but the set allows us to be very athletic and to use a lot of space."
Changes to the city in the past 15 years ' including gentrification of the East Village ' as well as medical breakthroughs that have made AIDS survivable and evolving attitudes toward gay couples have prompted Greif to treat the musical as if it were a period piece. This "Rent" will not be updated.
"I feel it's very important that it be firmly set in its time because New York in the late '80s and the early '90s was a very different place. HIV status meant a very different thing," he says. "The inability to imagine the future motivates so many of these characters."
The new cast ' like the original ' is made up of up-and-comers, including Chanler-Berat, who plays the filmmaker Mark and was in "Next to Normal" and "Peter and the Starcatcher," and Annaleigh Ashford, who has been on Broadway in "Wicked" and "Legally Blonde." Other actors were literally babies when "Rent" first appeared on Broadway.
Martin, reminiscing on his days with the show, wishes the new kids luck and isn't worried that the first cast's legacy might cast a shadow over the new team. He anticipates they'll do what he and the debut cast did ' dig deep to rise to the stunning material.
"There was supreme talent there back then in the original company and there's supreme talent in the new company. There's supreme talent in 'Rent' companies all over the world," he says. "It tends to be a bit of a star-maker."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits