Michael Greif knew Rent would stay in his life – his entire life – by the late 1990s. Jonathan Larson’s rock musical inspired by Puccini’s La bohème – making its TV debut as a special live event on Fox this Sunday – had already stunned New York’s theater world with a 1993 Off Broadway workshop, then 1996’s full Off Broadway production and, later that year, Broadway itself. Just as Hamilton would do two decades later, Rent had accomplished something few stage musicals have managed in the post-rock world: It captured the attention and love of a young generation, a generation that soon claimed Rent as its own.
Too many productions to count would follow, as Larson’s tale of young artists struggling to survive – in some cases, literally survive – in Manhattan’s pre-gentrified Lower East Side gained a worldwide following. Careers were made (early cast members included Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jesse L. Martin, among others). At least one song, “Seasons of Love,” became a bona fide standard. Awards were won (Tony and Pulitzer), fans were named (“RENT-heads”), cultural references were made (Hamilton gives Rent a shout-out, and Deadpool is a fan) and a movie came and went (the 2005 film directed by Chris Columbus and starring many of the original cast members was a rare disappointment in la vie Rent).
Larson himself lived to see little of it. In one of the theater’s most heart-rending true-life stories, the playwright-composer died after suffering an aortic dissection on the morning of Rent‘s first Off Broadway preview, a horror that has draped the Rent legend in both tragedy and, in a very real way, triumph ever since. Left to fulfill Larson’s dream, and help build his legacy, his collaborators never failed him.
Chief among them was, and is, Greif, the director of the original workshop, the Off Broadway production and the lines-down-the-block Broadway staging.
This Sunday, Greif’s involvement with Rent continues: He’s the stage director of Fox’s live TV event (Alex Rudzinski serves as the TV director). With the production, Rent becomes the latest, and, with its poignant depiction of a community decimated by the then-untreatable AIDS, perhaps most unexpected stage musical to air as a special TV event, following a recent raft of such musicals that have tended more toward late Golden Age Broadway or light family fare (The Sound of Music, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wiz, Peter Pan, Hairspray).
The Rent cast includes Kiersey Clemons, Brandon Victor Dixon, Jordan Fisher, Vanessa Hudgens, Brennin Hunt, Mario, Tinashe and Valentina, with Keala Settle performing the solo from “Seasons of Love.”
Deadline spoke to Greif, whose remarkable stage directing career includes Broadway’s critically acclaimed hits Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hanson, about his long involvement with the Larson musical, his thoughts on the new cast (and the old) and what Rent has to say to audiences today. (Greif’s upcoming projects include new play Make Believe by Bess Wohl, set to make its New York premiere at Second Stage this summer.)
Rent airs Sunday, Jan. 27, 8-11 PM ET live/PT tape-delayed) on Fox.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and lengthy.
Deadline: The Rent live event has been described as a reimagining. What does that mean? What will you be reimagining?
Michael Greif: What I got really thrilled about when I began having conversations about the possibility of doing this job was being able to include the camera – to include intimacy – and to really be able to get close up with the psychological complications of all of those characters. So that was the first very exciting new element. I was also very excited about the kind of environment we could reimagine the show in. From the very beginning, [exec producer] Marc Platt and I talked about how concert-like Rent was, how vital the interaction between performers and audience has always been, how there was always a hybrid nature to the show. So one of the first things we talked about was how to build on that performer-audience interaction, and also how to create an environment in which I thought we could clarify some of the narrative and give us the opportunity to visit certain locations with a little more specificity than we’ve ever been able to before. To really land certain scenes in ways we couldn’t land them before, or just give some of the characters some wonderful physical objects and environments to interact with.
That’s the plan that I brought to [set designer] Jason Sherwood. He and I had a fantastic time imagining what some of these locations would be like.
That’s what I’m curious about. What scene from the play first came to your mind in terms of wanting to land it a different way?
Well, for instance, I’ll Cover You, which is a beautiful duet between Collins and Angel, is always a little static in terms of what’s happening in the song, and so I’ve always tried to pursue different activities for them to engage in. It always seemed like, ‘Oh, what could they actually be doing as they pledged this love for one another, and how do we match the delight of that song with a delightful environment?’ And now I think we’ve managed to do that.
Another example are the scenes [with] the support group. That environment was so inspirational. Visiting an organization called Friends in Deed was so important to Jonathan in the inspiration for writing Rent, and this [telecast] felt like a wonderful opportunity to be able to get a little more specific about what that room might be like.
As soon as you mention Friends in Deed and Jonathan, I’m immediately taken back to the ’90s, and Friends in Deed and the Buddy Program of GMHC, or what was then more commonly called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I’m wondering, for you and for Rent and a world that has changed so much since the ’90s, What is Rent now? What are we going to learn from Jonathan Larson’s work this time around?
Well, that really has a many-sided answer. It’s important, I feel, to give a new audience the context of the very early ’90s and what those HIV diagnoses meant at the time. I think that’s terrifically vital to understand the psychology of the characters. I think Mimi and Roger and Angel and Collins are all responding to a very, very, very specific set of expectations that were true in the early ’90s that are no longer true, as you say, about an HIV diagnosis.
On the other hand, there are so many scenes in Rent that are completely and totally relevant today, and I think probably the most important theme is one of worthiness, of feeling worthy and being loved, of being able to share love, of never taking for granted the time we may or may not have because we can never be certain of what’s really right around the corner.
So those themes – of identity, of how you choose to define yourself as you’re becoming as an adult, and that incredibly vulnerable and volatile moment in your early 20s – I think that those notions of identity are as every bit as relevant as they ever were, especially in this environment and not only in the LGBTQI community, but in every community of young people. I mean, suicide is an issue we’re constantly looking at and struggling with, and I feel this show is so much about finding ways in which everyone can feel that their identity is valid, that their relationships are valid and honored. That diversity is welcome. There’s an inclusivity and an empathy [in Rent] and the ways in which the characters form a family and a community and treat each other with kindness and respect. Those issues are every bit as relevant now as they ever were, if not more so.
I’m curious – when Rent first came into your life all those years ago, could you have ever imagined that it would be there after all this time. That sounds flip, and of course with any hit show there are the possibilities of revivals and road shows, but at what point did you think to yourself, Rent is really going to be a big part of my life for the rest of my life?
I’ve got to say that once Rent became a sensation in the late ’90s, I knew it would always be a part of my life, mostly because of the fantastic opportunities and choices it offered me. I also must say that so many of the incredibly valued collaborations that I’ve had since Rent have been touched by Rent because so many extraordinary writers and composers in the process of working on other shows, will at some point, modestly confess how much Rent meant to them and set them on their path.
Lin-Manuel Miranda just tweeted about that the other day.
Yes, Lin said “I could imagine actually doing [theater] because I was interested in telling stories like Jonathan was telling, and I could imagine seeing myself up there because of the company that I was seeing on that Rent stage.” When I worked with Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey [Next to Normal], they said the same thing. When I worked with Justin Paul and Benj Pasek [Dear Evan Hansen], they said the same thing. So I’m really happy that it’s part of my theatrical DNA…and I’m really, really, really thrilled about the opportunities that Rent has made possible.
I mean I’d hate to think that I was ever only doing Rent, but I feel like things have worked out pretty well and I continue to get to work on new, vital, and even groundbreaking musicals since Rent.
Sure. You don’t want to be James Tyrone doing whatever that play he was doing over and over.
[Laughing] Well, as long as we’re talking about not being James Tyrone, I’m really glad Rent is a part of my life.
Rent was such a phenomenon on Broadway, with lines down the block, especially of young people. Do you see TV as a way of introducing it to a new audience? Do you sense that kids today still know Rent?
I think it’s so fantastic that it’s going to be introduced to a new audience. It’s always been a show that has touched young people very deeply. They see themselves in those characters at that very vulnerable and very volatile moment, and they see the formation of chosen family, and now [with the TV production] there’s an opportunity for people who couldn’t afford tickets or couldn’t afford the time to wait online for those limited amounts of very affordable tickets. And they get to meet the show with an incredible cast with all the heart and soul of the original beating loudly with some spectacular new effects, spectacular new stagings. The work of our choreographer, Sonya Tayeh, is so, so remarkable.
It just reminds me of when I had my mind blown seeing things on television for the first time, watching plays on TV and really meeting up with dramatic literature for the first time. I saw The Seagull on television long before I ever saw Chekhov in the theater. I remember watching the Tony Awards and just somehow feeling there was something going on that I was terrifically interested in. I’m hoping that has been happening with people watching these musicals on TV, and I’m really hoping that they become as absorbed in these Rent characters and scenes and are swept away by Jonathan’s incredible music as much as they’ve ever been in the theater.
When we talk about Rent reaching young people, it strikes me that it did so in the way Hamilton does now – with music of its generation. Has the music been updated at all for the TV staging? Does it still speak to its audience?
I’m hoping, I’m assuming, I’m feeling that it’s still speaking to those people. We have a larger band and a larger orchestra than we’ve ever had. We’re trying to follow Jonathan’s initial hopes of actually having a rock band and an orchestra. We have a large string section for the first time ever. Certainly some of the tracks, like “Today 4 U,” have been maybe updated, but [the music] continues to feel to me like contemporary music, like the music we’re listening to now. Music itself is so cyclical, and the reemergence of the ’90s has been almost like wonderfully karmic for us – ’90s culture is so much back in this moment. So it feels like the music continues to be relevant, and the ways in which we’ve changed the music has expanded its sound. There’s a greater versatility in the orchestra.
I’d never heard that Jonathan wanting a rock band and an orchestra.
Oh, Jonathan wanted a lot of things. It was really great to go back to the original stage directions and to see in those first drafts what he wanted to see. I think the television audience will actually see some of those things that he spoke about wanting to see.
Can you give a specific example?
The loft that Mark and Roger live in is now depicted, in some ways, more realistically than it’s ever been. It’s got the kind of skylight that Jonathan initially imagined. It’s got a tub in the kitchen, which Jonathan’s apartment actually had. So it’s a wonderful combination of stage directions and my memories of Jonathan’s actual apartment.
What is the new cast bringing to the show? You know, I have the original cast so clearly in my head that I wondering how the new cast will squeeze its way into my brain.
This company has been given every opportunity to make the characters very much their own. Musically, you’ll hear slight variations to really feature this company’s strength. In our rehearsal process I think the company was really excited and maybe even surprised at how open I would be to allowing their own interpretations and the parts of themselves that they wanted to imbue into these characters. This rehearsal process really gave us the opportunity to allow this particular group to inhabit these roles as fully as that original group did.
Have you heard from the original cast?
Yes, I’ve been in a lot of touch with the original. It’s really, really, really sweet and delightful. They’ve been on my mind a lot as I work with this group. This group, I have to say, reminds me in so many ways of the dynamics of the original group, the way in which they sing together at breaks. The way in which they support one another. When, Tinashe showed up to do “Out Tonight” for the first time in the space, the whole company showed up to celebrate it. There’s just a great spirit of generosity and a great feeling of concern and love for one another that I really think you’re going to see on the television, and that I’ve been really excited about since very, very early rehearsals in November. This score and and living the events of the show have always brought out the best in these young companies, but I think this group – and the ways in which they bring their individual talents and appreciate each other’s individual talents – is really what the heart and the soul of this show is.
Do you think we’ll see Next to Normal on television at some point? Can you give me a scoop here?
I’m not giving you a scoop here, but I’d certainly say that I would love to be able to reinvestigate Next to Normal the way I’ve been given the opportunity to reinvestigate Rent. That would be so sensational.