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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 20 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 29
This isn't last year's Rent

Director Bill Berry on the 1996 musical's timeless truths
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This isn't last year's Rent

Director Bill Berry on the 1996 musical's timeless truths

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

Rent
5th Avenue Theatre
July 21 - August 19


Bill Berry has worked with the 5th Avenue Theatre for nearly 12 years. In that time he's directed or otherwise helped produce at least one or two shows per season - including West Side Story, On the Town, Cabaret, and the recent First Date. His current directorial project is the pop-classic Rent, and here Berry brings his flair for re-envisioning to a show that's close to his heart. We caught up with him as opening night approached.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Why do you feel a special connection to the musical Rent?

Bill Berry: There are several reasons, but the main one is nostalgia. I was in New York when Rent first opened. I saw the original cast, after sitting in the rush line. It was the first show that offered $20 lottery seats in the front rows. I went at 6 a.m. and sat down in line. Friends came by all day. I remember it being the first time watching a musical and thinking, 'This really reflects the world I live in.' It spoke to me on a personal level. Since it's about artists, surviving, a community, and love, it's basically about growing up and what that means. It's the only time I've ever seen the show, back in 1996.

Andrews-Katz: When a show gets 're-envisioned,' what does that mean?

Berry: What does it mean to anybody? It's about taking the time to ask questions about the material. Sort of revisiting it, if you will. Going back and looking over Romeo and Juliet, people study the scripts, and who [the characters] were and what is happening to them and why. We revisit them so we can bring it to new life. Putting on Rent now is different from the artists who created it in 1996. We live in a different world, and some things are less shocking these days. It's like trying to explain to the younger people of today what impact HIV had when it first was 'discovered.' Then it was a death sentence, now people are living 20, 30 years. That's not to say it's not still a devastating thing.

Andrews-Katz: How does this production differ from previous ones?

Berry: That's a really good question for me. I don't know what I remember from the original New York production, and [don't know] what I'm doing different now, as opposed to what I have envisioned in my mind. I think we are doing different kinds of movement with the staging. It's set now in a warehouse space, and this group of people breaks into it and begins telling us a story. It's hard to explain. We thought that since it's about a group of artists, what if a group of artists tells us the story? The set is different, as it's basically completely covered in graffiti. But if you look closely you'll notice the graffiti are all lyrics to the show. It's still Rent. The same lyrics and the same music - we're just interpreting it a little differently.

Andrews-Katz: How do you think a show like Rent holds on to its relevance 16 years after its premiere?

Berry: It holds up amazingly well! It's a very rich story and the characters are fully developed, so it holds up easily like all great pieces of theater. It opens up to new interpretations because of that. Different and valid interpretations on really good material, again like Shakespeare. Every time you see Romeo and Juliet, it's presented differently. You may not like what they've done with it, but you rely on it to be good theater.

Andrews-Katz: What do you think eventually happens to Collins?

Berry: Collins is a survivor. He's definitely one of those people who are going to come through no matter what.

Andrews-Katz: What about Mark? Berry: He's probably still making movies and doing what he loves to do. He's probably doing documentary films - he's the Michael Moore of the [Lower East Side] film world.

Andrews-Katz: Roger?

Berry: Roger doesn't make it. I think he's just too far along and his illness catches up with him.

Andrews-Katz: Benny?

Berry: He never repents. He becomes a Donald Trump and just goes on making more money. But I like to think he makes a lot of donations to several good causes.

Andrews-Katz: Do you think that Maureen and Joanne stay together as a couple?

Berry: They are off and on again. They even break up five more times and get back together. Eventually I think they become wife-long partners.

Andrews-Katz: If you have to pick a moment from the show that affects you the most what would it be?

Berry: Honestly, I think Angel's funeral affects me the most. There is something so real about having to say goodbye to someone, and moving on from someone who is gone - how we honor someone's memory. Working on that scene, it was difficult not to let all of my emotions take over when I walked out that door. The recent days have been beautiful and sunny when I'm walking home, and I'm crying from that scene.

Andrews-Katz: If you could pick any show - musical or nonmusical - to direct, what would it be and why?

Berry: The show I most want to do is Ragtime. I've been fascinated with it for a while, and it happens to be my favorite show as well so it works out. Whatever I work on tends to become what I want to do most, but if someone walked in and said 'You can do any show,' it would have to be Ragtime.

Rent opened at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre in April 1996. It quickly developed a passionate fan base, whose members were dubbed 'Rent-heads.' Nominated for 10 Tony Awards, it won four, including Best Musical of 1996. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama - one of only seven musicals ever to capture that honor. It closed on Broadway in September 2008.

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This isn't last year's Rent

Director Bill Berry on the 1996 musical's timeless truths

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