Rent, a rock musical set during the AIDS crisis in the late ’80s/early ’90s in New York, has become a period piece since it changed the face of musical theater in its 1996 debut.

But rather than enduring only as a period piece, the groundbreaking musical’s legacy goes far beyond that. As creator Jonathan Larson worked on the piece in the ’90s, he said he wanted to create a rock opera for the MTV generation, based on the Puccini opera La Boheme.

In Rent, the poverty and homelessness of the gritty East Village took the place of the romanticized artists’ garret in Paris. (Interestingly, Rent’s premiere came 100 years after La Boheme premiered in Turin, Italy.) The work was lauded for both its exhilarating rock music score that successfully furthered its contemporary story, and its deeply human treatment of characters suffering from HIV or AIDS.

The show became a huge cultural phenomenon, winning four Tony Awards, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and running more than 12 years on Broadway to become the 11th longest-running show in Broadway history.

Rent’s 20th anniversary tour continues about 1½ years after it launched in the fall of 2016, landing at Playhouse Square Tuesday for three weeks of performances through March 25.

Tour director Evan Ensign’s work with the groundbreaking musical goes back more than 20 years, when he was production stage manager for the first Angel tour that launched nationally just eight months after the Broadway show opened. His longstanding love for Larson’s work also stems from having been associate director for the Broadway show and director for the productions in Montreal and the Far East.

“Today I have to look at the piece and kind of go, ‘it is a period piece.’ It’s set in a very, very specific time when AZT was the only thing that could give you any sort of hope for six months extra life if you were diagnosed with AIDS,” said Ensign, 56. “Not that absolutely every person who was diagnosed with AIDS or HIV died, but so many did.”

The story’s mortality issues for young adults are very different from today’s, but the show’s universal themes have endured. In this story, we see a year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. The show celebrates friendship as well as joy and hope in the face of fear, as illustrated by the lyrics “No day but today” from the song Another Day.

Rent’s most universal themes are those of love and creating family, Ensign said. Rent’s characters, loosely based on the opera’s characters, have been beloved for more than 20 years because all of the lead characters are ultimately redeemable, whether they’re struggling with disease, drugs, relationships or a combination of the above.

“They’re still looking for what everyone in the world is looking for — love,” Ensign said. “We fight the most with the people we love the most. It’s because we want to be understood by them … We fight because we actually care.’’

Larson, who died from an aortic aneurysm in the early morning of the day that Rent began its Off-Broadway previews, never got to see his work become a smash success. But more than 20 years after the show first rocked the musical theater world, audiences are still deeply affected by his themes of building a family and measuring your life through love.

‘Landmark rock opera’

In its Off-Broadway premiere, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the show a “landmark rock opera,” whose rock score gave voice to a generation the most successfully since Hair.

“Jonathan used rock and roll and R&B, he was using contemporary music styles in theater in ways that sort of hadn’t been done since Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar,’’ Ensign said.

Its diverse score of rock, dance pop, salsa and R&B led to a shift for musicals that have come since, making it a mainstream practice to use contemporary music in a musical theater score.

Without Rent and Hair and the way they used contemporary music, Hamilton wouldn’t exist, Ensign said.

In Hamilton, “you think you’re gonna get a history lesson and you get this amazing emotional story about an incredibly faulted man who we all can relate to, and we don’t expect that that’s what’s going to happen. It is a history lesson but told in the most contemporary and current music. Rent did this in its time as well,’’ he said by phone from the tour in Atlanta.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said Rent was a source of inspiration for him. He even references the show in his Wrote My Way Out lyrics, with the line “Running out of time like I’m Jonathan Larson’s rent check” on The Hamilton Mixtape.

Ensign never got to meet Larson. But he knows his parents Al and Nan well, and his sister Julie, who ran the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation for many years. Al visited the Rent tour in Anaheim just a few weeks ago.

“They’re very proud of their son and are very committed to keeping his voice being heard,’’ Ensign said.

The director, who said some former cast members now bring their kids to see the tour, sees how strongly audience members today continue to relate to Rent’s timeless messages. At the Fox Theatre in Atlanta in late February, as soon as the cast started singing the iconic words “525,600 minutes” from the Act II opener Seasons of Love, the audience burst into applause.

“I’ve had them clap while the music starts but never once the singing starts,’’ in 20 years of experience with the show, he said.

Original Broadway creative team members who reunited for the 20th anniversary tour include choreographer Marlies Yearby and costume designer Angela Wendt, with Ensign restaging Michael Greif’s original direction. Today’s young touring cast includes actors from ages 22 to 28, many of whom were introduced to the show by their parents and were very young children when it was playing on Broadway.

As part of the company’s education, Ensign shows the actors an old video put out by MTV and VH1 called AIDS: A Pop Culture History to help provide the young actors with context. As a cast, they spend time talking about mortality and losing people they have loved.

“You can’t teach pain. You can’t teach heartbreak,’’ Ensign said.

Of course, Rent’s original company — including Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Fredi Walker — share the bond of losing Larson, their friend and the show’s creator, just as the musical was launching.

“That group had a depth to it that none of the others will in the same way,’’ Ensign said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.