Tonight I saw my first Christmas commercial of the season. I don’t know how long they’ve been running ads; I don’t watch that much television. But I clued into it because it was using “Seasons of Love” from Jonathan Larson‘s landmark musical Rent as background for a Macy’s ad. I’m not sure what the late composer-lyricist would have thought of the song’s usage, but I smiled wryly and moved on with my evening. But it turned out later in the evening that Rentheads around the world are receiving an early Christmas present.
Much to my surprise, the first order of business in Michael Riedel’s Friday column wasn’t a chronicling of the ongoing woes of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but the announcement of the first NY revival of Rent. (He does get to Spidey, but in the bottom half of his column). However, while his headline referred to ‘B’way’, this revival will actually occur off-Broadway at New World Stages. According to Riedel’s post, one of the show’s original producers, Allan S. Gordon, got the idea seeing a concert version last summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Original director Michael Greif will stage the show; however, it will be a brand new production with new staging, sets and costumes. Performances are expected to start in June 2011. My initial reaction to the news was, “Already?!”
The success of the musical is legendary, from its humble beginnings at the New York Theatre Workshop, when composer-lyricist-librettist Larson’s sudden death made international headlines to its longevity on Broadway. That initial tragedy ended up giving the show a life of its own, becoming an unstoppable juggernaut that captivated audiences with this modern retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème. The show ended its 12 year, 5124 performance run in September 2008 and has been touring extensively. When Rent announced its initial plans to shutter at the Nederlander, there was such demand for tickets that producers extended the run through the summer. Its last days were sold out.
On one hand, a revival makes perfect sense. Rent is one of the most recognizable musicals in the world, with a large fanbase that would have preferred it if the show had never closed. It’s become the standard by which all new rock musicals are compared. Spring Awakening and Next to Normal have been met with similar acclaim, accolades and the attachment of young theatergoers. In conversations I’ve had with fans, there were some who referred to each show as the “new Rent” but neither has been able to live up to the commercial or sentimental longevity of their predecessor.
This is a show that can be sold to both native New Yorkers and the ever-important tourists. The business model has been proven effective by the recent transition of Avenue Q from Broadway to off-Broadway, where it’s already shown a profit. (The 39 Steps also made a similar move, no word on how they’re doing). The costs of off-Broadway are not as demanding and it guarantees employment for a whole lot of people – actors, musicians, stage hands and front of house employees. Stars are unnecessary; the show premiered with a lot of unknowns, most of whom have gone on to considerable success. The original Broadway production was capitalized at $3.5 million in 1996. This revival will cost $1.5 million, which is really chump change when compared to Spider-Man’s $65 million price tag.
On the other hand, I have to ask: how soon is too soon? There are many shows that theater fans would like to see revived, running the gamut from the biggest hits to the most obscure flops. Rent closed just over two years ago, which will seem to some too early for a revival. The show that open tend to offer comfort and familiarity; if there’s at all a film or popular rock band involved, that’s just even better. Ripples were sent through the theatre community when Les Miserables was revived three and a half years after its closing. Revivals of Gypsy and La Cage Aux Folles came back to Broadway only five years after the most recent productions. Ragtime received a major Broadway revival less than ten years after its original production closed. Currently, Angels in America is being revived off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company, twenty years removed from the landmark debut of Millennium Approaches.
There are many interesting musicals and plays I would like to see revived. I will always make it a point to see classics like Gypsy or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when there’s a production in town. But there are some other older titles I would like to see brought back in commercial engagements, and I don’t just mean the revival of Mame starring Donna Murphy that I’ve had a hankering for. I don’t mind revivals so long as they’re either warranted or justified.
But in reviving these contemporary shows at an increasing rate, are we seeking the same familiarity and comfort with which we flock to jukebox musicals and screen-to-stage adaptations? Or is it more likely we are either running low on original ideas or producers are unwilling to take the financial risk on new material?