By Josh Getlin
Special to The Times
September 2, 2008
Jonathan Larson's rock- fueled fable of AIDS-ravaged friends in New York's East Village will be the seventh longest-running musical in history when it closes Sunday. The edgy, provocative show changed the future of American musical theater, and was a box office bonanza, grossing $280 million at home and $630 million worldwide.
"Everything comes to an end, especially on Broadway, but 'Rent's' message of tolerance and love goes on," said Allan Gordon, one of the producers. "This is not the end. It's just a new phase."
Indeed, Sony Pictures will tape Sunday's final performance for screenings on Sept. 24, 25, 27 and 28 in more than 600 theaters. A new national tour begins next year, with stops in Los Angeles and San Diego. "Rent," which won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards, also spawned a 2005 film and launched the careers of Taye Diggs, Jesse Martin, Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal.
After 12 years, however, the Broadway production was laboring to compete against newer musicals aimed at younger audiences, such as "Spring Awakening," "Legally Blonde," "Wicked" and "Avenue Q." Seasons of Love gave way to simple economic realities.
But for those fans who have loved "Rent" more than most, the "Rentheads" who have seen the production dozens, even hundreds of times at the Nederlander Theater -- true believers who turned their love of the show into a way of life -- the closing will be a tragedy.
"I've seen the show more than 200 times, and it's changed my life," said a somber Jacob Erdmanczyk, standing outside the Nederlander. Like many other Rentheads, he had lined up countless times for a chance to win $20 front-row seats on a lottery conducted before each performance. Like others who were waiting patiently in a long line snaking down the block, Erdmanczyk said the show was more than just popular entertainment.
"This show tells a story you don't see in most other musicals," he said. "The people in 'Rent,' and the story, are real. That's why people keep coming back to see it again and again."
It's a message you hear up and down the line -- and in online testimonials -- especially, from people in their 20s and younger: "I was in despair, but 'Rent' gave me hope to go on living again." "Nobody understood me, and 'Rent' gave me the courage to be myself."
When the show opened in 1996, after a three-month run at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop, Broadway was packed with musicals that catered to mostly upscale, middle-aged customers. Larson's gritty show, based loosely on Puccini's "La Boheme," was different because its characters -- gays, homeless people, drag queens and performance artists -- were not exactly a staple on the Rialto. The show treated such issues as AIDS, homosexuality and race with compassion, making Broadway seem relevant and vital.
While "Rent" is not the only musical to build an extensive fan base, few observers can recall a show that's attracted such a large grass-roots army, especially through the Internet. Rentheads fill chat rooms and websites. They text each other constantly. Some hook up in real life. Others follow the show on tour, from one city to the next.
"You won't find anything like it on Broadway," said door manager Derek King, standing outside the Nederlander on West 41st Street "When this kind of a show disappears, people are going to mourn."
As the closing approaches, grief fills the graffiti-marked walls of the theater. Hundreds of Rentheads and other fans have been scrawling final goodbyes. Some are brimming with sadness; others with anger.
On a recent evening, Izabela Oliveria, who comes from Brazil, was waiting in line for tickets. She hoped to see the show for a fourth time because "it teaches us to care about each other. How do I go on when it closes?" Ten feet away, Kent Siladi from Florida had brought his wife and two grown daughters to see the show for the fifth time. "We've been doing this since the show opened," he said. "And we're very upset that it's ending, because it's become part of our family."
Actors in the current production feel the same way.
Gwen Stewart, who appeared in the original cast as a homeless woman and came back to the role for the closing shows, sings the explosive solo in "Seasons of Love." Stewart, who now lives in the San Fernando Valley, bristles at comments by some critics that "Rent" is dated.
"It talks about AIDS, homelessness, intolerance, segregation and greed," she said after a recent performance. "When all of that's been wiped away, I'll agree that it's dated."
Michael McElroy, who appeared in the 1997 cast and has returned to the role of Tom Collins, said "Rent's" continuing appeal can be seen in the faces of audience members. When he sings a powerful song in memory of Angel, his drag queen lover, "it's like the audience is at a funeral . . . people feel deep grief."
Death hovers over the story line of "Rent," but it became a shocking reality when the show premiered. Larson, who fought for seven years to stage his musical, died from an aortic aneurysm days before the 1996 opening. The pain is undiminished.
"I've often told people that I'd trade it all -- the celebrity, the success, everything -- if Johnny could just be back with us now," said his father, Al Larson, who lives in Century City with his wife, Nan. "But I'm glad I told my son that I loved him the last time I saw him. If the show has one message, it's that you've got to show love to other people. That message will go on, just like 'Rent' itself."
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