As previously tipped (See The Goss, 2 May 2007), Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent will return to the West End this autumn, in a 21st-century “remixed” version given a pop edge by Kylie Minogue’s former creative director William Baker. The new production, starring former Sugababes band member Siobhan Donaghy making her West End debut, opens on 16 October 2007 (previews from 2 October) at the Duke of York’s Theatre, where it’s booking until 5 April 2008.

Rent received its West End premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 12 May 1998 and closed on 30 October 1999 after a run of 18 months. It has since toured the UK extensively and had two limited West End return seasons, the last in 2005/6 when supermodel Caprice starred (See News, 18 Nov 2002).

Inspired by Puccini's La Bohême, Larson's original musical updated the plot to early 1990s New York where a community of East End squatters battled to fulfil their aspirations against the reality of rent demands and AIDS. The death of 35-year-old creator and composer, who died of an aortic aneurysm shortly after the final dress rehearsal of Rent's debut, transformed the musical into a cause celebre in New York, where it’s still running.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, William Baker, who makes his theatre directing debut with the musical, explained the thinking behind the new version, which has been in development for two years: “The original version was created 15 years ago and it was projected to an audience that was very New York-based, addressing AIDS and the gay community. It was an incredible piece of contemporary culture at that time. I don’t think it’s become exactly outdated – it’s a great story and the messages at the core of it are still timeless - but the whole music and film industries have changed and the way kids look at music today has changed. My background is all about pop imagery and visuals. The thing that I never really liked about the original was the way that it looked. I just wanted to re-present Rent, not to replace the original but to reinvent it for a new ipod audience, to update it so it that appeals to a whole new generation.”

Baker’s version has been pruned down to a running time of just over two hours, with electric guitar riffs and some Americanisms removed, and references to HIV therapies updated. The minimalist white “void” set will be enhanced with chrome fire escapes and a digital landscape. “The group of characters could be in any place at any time - they could be living in Hoxton or Shoreditch or Manchester,” says Baker. The British actors will speak in their native accents.

Baker admits that his team runs “the risk of alienating Rent fans”, though he hopes they’ll be surprised rather than “appalled”. “When Rent was first produced, Jonathan tragically died at the point when it would have been tightened up. We’ve edited it a lot, taken it down to its core, down to core relationships and issues. We’ve preserved the basic melodies, but the arrangements are completely different, ranging from burlesque to hard core grunge to pop … I think we’ve been true to Jonathan’s original intentions, the story and the music he wrote.”

Siobhan Donaghy - who post-Sugababes has recently released her second solo album, Ghosts - plays Mimi alongside Luke Evans (Taboo, Miss Saigon) as Roger, Oliver Thornton (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) as Mark, Leon Lopez (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, TV’s Brookside, Hollyoaks) as Collins and Whatsonstage.com Award nominee Jay Webb (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) as Angel. Also in the cast are: Francesca Jackson (Joanne), Craig Stein (Benny), Ruth Augilera, Jamie Sampson, Antony Luperi, Earl Perkins, Lewis Griffiths and Philippa Stefani.

Fellow Kylie Minogue collaborator Steve Anderson acts as Rent’s music supervisor. He and William Baker have also worked with musicians such as Westlife, Jay Kay, Shirley Manson, Bjork, Geri Halliwell, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Sting, Paul McCartney and Britney Spears.

In targeting the same youthful audience as the pop industry, Rent will introduce a first in West End ticketing: a general admission pricing policy, similar to gigs and concerts, with stalls tickets at just £30 (compared to top prices upwards of £55 for other West End musicals), allocated on a first come, first served basis at each performance. (If people want the luxury of selecting their seats in advance, they can opt for ‘Rented’ seats priced at £15, £25 and £45.)

Rent is designed by Mark Bailey, with lighting by David Howe and sound by Sebastian Frost. It’s produced by the Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulbart Productions and Michael Brenner. Currently at the Duke of York’s, Anna Mackmin’s revival of David Storey’s In Celebration, in which Orlando Bloom has made his stage debut, finishes its limited season on 15 September 2007.

- by Terri Paddock

NOTE: Booking is due to open for this production on Monday 6 August 2007.