How long have you lived on the Bowery?
I moved into my apartment officially a little over 15 years ago.
What’s changed in the neighborhood since you’ve been there?
[Laughs] Everything! The Bowery itself… I guess BBs was on it?
There was almost nothing else anywhere around there—CBGBs, of course. But in terms of the newer things, the beautiful hotel, all the restaurants… I’m trying to remember exactly when Five Points opened  – that’s always one of my favorite neighborhood places. I think it was here before I got here, or right around the same time.
But I would say that by and large the development has felt in keeping with the spirit of architecture of the neighborhood for the most part. And then all the restaurants — I’m just grateful there are so many good choices to have delicious food in the neighborhood.
It’s safe to say that the neighborhood has been gentrified. But I don’t know honestly how much residential stuff was happening before. Lafayette hasn’t changed that much — except closer to Houston there’s that development. But the character of Lafayette has stayed very much the same. Soho has gotten crazier and crazier in terms of foot traffic and tourist traffic and shopping, it’s like the shopping mecca now, and that bleeds over into Broadway. But one of the things I love about the neighborhood is that the side streets are still quiet. If you want to be in the craziness you can go right onto Broadway, and if you want to be more in “stroll-y,” lovely kind of quiet downtown neighborhood, that’s quite literally around the corner.
What about young artists moving to New York now — how can they possibly afford it? Isn’t making “Rent” a bigger issue than ever?
All the people I know who are young actors moving to New York, they’re almost all living in way uptown Manhattan, or in Astoria, Greenpoint, Far Rockaway, or even Bed Stuy, or Bushwick. Everything is getting pushed out to the margins. The center of Manhattan and downtown Manhattan is getting priced out. But I don’t know who’s really looking at Chinatown. I’m not sure if they’re aware of that as being a possible place to live.
You come from a talented family — your brother [playwright Adam Rapp] seems to work nonstop. Do you have any plans to work with him?
I want to do something with him again. In the last quite a few years our schedules have just not allowed it. I have these things that have been in the works for a while, and they come to fruition, and he never knows when the next thing he’s got is going to happen…. That’s one of the things I’ve been really wanting to do, after this experience [working on If/Then] in particular. That would be a great thing to do again, is work with him. We have worked together in the past. And we’ve continued to support each other’s work. The times when I’ve worked on his material, I feel like I have a very strong connection to it but also have a real understanding of his sensibility, and where he comes from when he’s writing. The rhythm and the worldview feels very at home to me.
You really came up with Idina Menzel. How is it working with her again?
It’s been — the word I keep using is dreamy. I’ve been in show business for 33 years — as a professional actor — I started when I was a little kid. And over the years, among the things of most value to me are working with materials that I like and that are enriching to work on, which If/Then is. And as important or more important is working with great like-minded people — like-minded in the sense that what’s most important to us is the work itself, treating each other with respect and a collaborative spirit, and enjoying each other’s company. Coming to work with a good open heart and open mind. And then to have the shared history, and friendship with Idina — just puts a bonus round on all of it.
That’s the other term I keep using to describe this experience: bonus round. We had such a great experience all those years ago [with Rent], and then with the film [version of Rent], to come back and do that. So to come back again and do something that we love and care about, it is, it’s bonus round. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
The other cool thing about the show is that, people have been saying it’s sort of like a grown-up Rent in the sense that it’s about a community of people living in New York City, but obviously later and New York has changed so much. The show talks about that… In one of the storylines, Idina’s character is an urban planner. And I think the best of what’s happened in Manhattan is epitomized in the reclaiming of old spaces like the High Line.
Like I said, in my neighborhood, for the most part been able to develop things that feel in harmony with what was there before. …it’s in the spirit of what our show’s talking about, too, and it’s just funny and coincidental. Once again, I’m doing something that resonates directly with my own life. Because at the time I was doing Rent I was living in the East Village, on 10th street between First and A. My life keeps getting echoed onstage and offstage.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of Killing Williamsburg.