How 'Rent' Ate Up the Road

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

In August, 44-year-old Robert Trowbridge and his wife, Denise, were among the audience at an evening performance of "Rent" at the La Jolla Playhouse. A roofer from Escondido, Trowbridge hardly fit the demographic one might expect for a Broadway musical about New York's East Village bohemians, which includes a cross-dressing hero, lingering kisses between rubber-draped lesbians, heterosexual lovers who "meet cute" over a bag of heroin and homeless people with AIDS.

Nor, for that matter, did many of La Jolla's white, middle-age, wealthy subscribers in the audience, who at first seemed a bit wary of what kind of evening they were in for--despite the fact that "Rent"' is one of the most talked-about musicals in recent history and is the winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tonys.

Yet, near the end of the first act, Trowbridge reached over to take his wife's hand as Collins, the MIT dropout, sang "I'll Cover You" to his newly met transvestite lover, Angel. And to some extent, the roofer's gesture expressed a collective relief that seemed to be spreading through the audience as the show progressed. They realized they were not going to be offended, denigrated or made to feel un-hip by a show touted in a Newsweek cover story as "defining a new generation."

"We liked it," Trowbridge said after the performance, noting that his tickets had been a gift from a client. Although he and his wife do not often attend theater, they had heard about the musical beforehand, though not from the media. Their 14-year-old son, Robert, had sung some of the songs in a high school revue and is a fan. "He keeps playing that CD over and over again," said Trowbridge, betraying the kind of exasperation that 30 years ago parents had reserved for their children's fascination with "Hair."

Now, 17 months after "Rent" opened on Broadway, following a dramatic showcase run at New York Theatre Workshop that was tragically highlighted by the untimely death of Jonathan Larson, its 35-year-old creator, just before previews began, the ongoing saga of "Rent" is entering a new chapter in its phenomenal success as it opens at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre next Sunday for an 18-week run.

"Rent" is neither a commercial juggernaut like "Phantom of the Opera" nor is it a snob literary hit like "Les Miserables." Yet this pop-music musical loosely based on "La Boheme" is proving to be one of the most influential Broadway musicals in recent history.

Since last November, the first road production, nicknamed "the Angel Company," played Boston for 29 weeks, Minneapolis for 11 1/2 weeks and is now in Washington, D.C. A second touring production, "the Benny Company," opened this summer in La Jolla with an 11-week engagement, and it will play Los Angeles for 18 weeks before heading for Phoenix. A third company opens in Toronto next month.

Not bad for a show that faced early skepticism about its future outside New York because of its dicey subject matter and the narrow geography of its East Village setting. Some naysayers also predicted that "Rent" could not rely on the intense publicity that accompanied its Broadway bow, saying the show never would have been quite so heralded had Larson's death not provided such a neat metaphoric hook for the media.

"I think a lot of people were skeptical about the hype, and that was true when we opened here [in San Diego]," says Michael Greif, "Rent's" 38-year-old director, who is also artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. He scored a coup when he convinced the producers out of loyalty to give the playhouse the West Coast premiere. Subscriptions at the playhouse shot up within days of the announcement, and the run was soon sold out.

"People wanted to experience it for themselves. There was some worry on their part, I guess, that if they didn't like it, they would wonder if it was something wrong with them or with the production. But I was confident that its universal themes and its openheartedness would be as accessible to people around the country as it was to New Yorkers."

Indeed, while "Rent" still has its share of negative responses--"What a piece of garbage!" muttered one disgruntled patron as he stalked out of a La Jolla performance--the show is nonetheless demonstrating remarkable trans-generational appeal on the road, even among older audiences, who seem touched by its bittersweet message of living life to the fullest as the only triumph over death, particularly as visited on the young by AIDS.

Its success appears to have long-range potential as well: "Rent" is bringing in a whole new generation of young theatergoers, crucial for the long-term prospects of Broadway. Evidence of this can be seen not only by those waiting in line for up to 12 hours for cheap tickets released daily for the show, but also by the fans across the country burning up the Internet at multiple "Rent" Web sites, including the official one (http://www.siteforrent.com).

And breaking new ground through the Internet is only one aspect of a revolution in Broadway marketing that "Rent" is spearheading with its unconventional graphics and aggressive tactics designed, in the words of one executive, to appeal not only to the traditional theatergoer but also to those "who hate the word 'musical.' "

Greif says that from the very beginning it was clear to him and to the producers of "Rent"--Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan Gordon--that the show "wasn't anybody's idea of a musical." The hope was to get people into the theater and "let the experience just wash over them." The tremendous publicity attached to Larson's death helped, of course. But many of the marketing decisions that apply to the road--notably the choice of a stark stenciled "RENT" logo in black accompanied only by a phone number--were made in the week after the New York Theatre Workshop opening, when it became clear that the show would move to Broadway and David Geffen picked up the rights to the original cast recording.

Eager to have input into the show's logo, which would eventually grace the CD and album covers, the record mogul brought in Drew Hodges, an exuberant 33-year-old marketing executive experienced in promoting pop music and television but with no experience in theater.

"The first thing we wanted to show in the move from downtown to Broadway was to allay people's fears that we were selling out, that the show was maintaining its riskiness and the 'Rent' logo, I think, does that without ghettoizing ourselves as some hipster world of the Lower East Side," says Hodges, who has followed up his successful campaign for "Rent" with bold and innovative campaigns for the hit musical "Chicago" and, this season, "The Diary of Anne Frank."

The stenciled logo was eventually supplemented with a grid of nine photos of the New York cast chosen, Hodges says, to show "the humanity of the show and to capitalize on one of the theater's greatest strengths, that it is a 'live' performance, a unique experience that's different every night."

"We wanted to attract not only the traditional theatergoer but also those who had given up on Broadway or never given it a second thought," Hodges adds. "But in talking to the disenfranchised, you really have to make them feel welcome, to educate them and to make it as affordable and easy for them to get tickets as possible."

In fact, one of the most successful promotional angles surrounding "Rent"--which has subsequently been adopted by many Broadway shows--has been to price the first two rows of orchestra seats at $20 instead of Broadway's usual $75. The clever gambit has been put into effect on the road as well--in Los Angeles $20 tickets will go on sale at the box office two hours before each performance; this compares to regular prices of $35 to $70 at the Ahmanson. The success of the low-priced tickets not only combats the cynical charge that a show about bohemian squatters is affordable only to the rich, but also generates excitement at each performance, since those at the very front of the theater have invested hours of waiting. Television and newspaper coverage of the lines of mostly young people waiting in the winter's bitter cold or camping overnight for tickets to "Rent" has certainly fed the general perception that tickets are tough to get. (In Los Angeles, no lineups are allowed before 6 a.m.)

For the road, working in tandem with the advertising agency Serino-Coyne and "Rent's" touring marketing director Laura Matalon, Hodges helped to develop a new campaign that would use many of the New York components but include modifications to answer local producers' concerns that some of the show's grittier scenes might be offensive to their subscribers. Indeed, some felt the need to include in their sales brochure a disclaimer that the show dealt with adult themes, advising parental guidance.

"While we always believed in pushing the marketing envelope with 'Rent,' " says Hodges, "we couldn't just come in with our New York ideas and shove them down their throats. We had to be aware of and respect the values in the local communities. We wanted to tear walls down, not build them up."

The marketing also needed to respond to focus-group surveys showing that, despite the tremendous pre-publicity, producers could take nothing for granted. Getting out word that the show had won both the Pulitzer and Tony awards was especially important. "We couldn't be arrogant in thinking that everybody knew what the show was," says Matalon. "We had to communicate that as invitingly and inclusively as possible without being misleading. I felt that some of the images in the grid were too raw and urban for traditional audiences and because Los Angeles, in particular, is so oriented to outdoor advertising, we needed to boil that down to one powerful image. What came out of our discussions and focus-group research was that, in addition to the 'Rent' logo, the single photo of Adam [Pascal] was a compelling and emotional representation of the show. It had a lot of complex feeling and conveyed the idea that the show was not about style, but about the human condition."

Pascal created the part of Roger, one of the six leading roles, and for it he earned a Tony nomination. His visage adorns newspaper advertising in Los Angeles and is on the posters at the Ahmanson Theatre, despite the fact that he is not in the company that will be seen in L.A. (he is still in the New York cast). Christian Mena, making his musical theater debut, is taking the role of Roger at the Ahmanson.

Asked whether using posters of Pascal to promote the show in Los Angeles might not be misleading, Hodges acknowledges that the use of any photos in a marketing campaign has long sparked fierce debate in the Broadway community. "The question was always, 'What happens when people leave the cast?' " Hodges says. "But that attitude left Broadway's marketing with just a lot of abstract images, feeling very dated, very 1975. In introducing these photos, we were lucky that the cast is largely unknowns and . . . these specific images serve as iconic metaphors. Adam is not just Adam in the picture but a representation of Roger for all time.

"Ultimately, it came down to one of those cases where the producers simply said, 'We don't believe it's a problem,' and took the risk." Other producers have since followed that precedent on other shows.

Producer Jeffrey Seller maintains that next to the show itself, the "best ambassador" for "Rent" has been the original cast album that debuted in August 1996 at No. 17 on the Top 100 Billboard pop charts and to date has sold more than 350,000 units. "No other original cast album has done that in 30 years," says the producer, noting that "Rent" has attracted a legion of fans who only know the show from the record and the Internet. However, unlike "Hair," whose score in the late '60s spawned at least half a dozen pop hits by various artists, Larson's songs for "Rent" have yet to be championed by a popular recording star--except for Stevie Wonder's version of "Seasons of Love," which failed to generate much excitement. Many believe that the simple reason the songs haven't caught fire apart from the show is that they aren't strong enough on their own.

Nonetheless, the show's cast album--filled as it is with youthful longing, idealism and romantic sentiment--has struck a cult-like chord among some high school and college students. Indeed, what is one of the most remarkable developments is that songs like "Seasons of Love"--in which the denizens of "Rent" proclaim the manifesto of measuring their time spent on Earth in love shared rather than monetary or social gain--have now become a part of the youth culture.

"I think the young, in particular, connect with the passion of these characters," says Seller. "Their need to connect with friends and lovers, their desperate attempt to balance the American dream without selling out. It's a central question today, and the show addresses it in a very direct and meaningful and positive way. For a generation that rejects his or her own family and creates one fashioned from their circle of friends and lovers, what better model do they have than the kids in 'Rent'? "

Indeed, it is arguable that no matter how effective the marketing of the show may be, the efforts would matter little if "Rent" did not succeed on its own merits. When it opened at New York Theatre Workshop, the show was overshadowed to some degree by the sheer drama of Larson's death on the eve of the very first preview of a show that he'd worked on for seven years. Media reports for the first six months of the show invariably contained the sentence, "Larson, who died suddenly at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm. . . . " With time, however, the ghost of the young composer/book writer appears to be receding. At a performance of "Rent" this summer in La Jolla, only one of a dozen queried knew of his premature death. Yet, his legacy looms greater than ever. The unconventional success "Rent" continues to enjoy on Broadway and on the road just seems to reinforce the feeling that Somebody Up There likes this musical.

"Since Jonathan died, we've continued to ask the question, 'What would Jonathan have wanted?' on almost any issue that's come up, including the marketing and promotion," says Seller. "He couldn't have known that his death would have been so much a part of the hype of the show at first. But now people are voting with their presence. This is a survival-of-the-fittest business. No amount of hoopla, or records sold or ads bought or stories written, can change that."

And 17 months after it opened, there's still not an unsold seat on Broadway, and the road has been a bonanza. It was sold out throughout the La Jolla run, and as it prepares to open at the Ahmanson, seats for the first 12 weeks of the run are 80% sold out. (An additional six weeks of tickets will be made available on Friday.)

" 'Rent' is now out there on its own steam, and people are coming because they love what Jonathan had to say about life and love and mortality and caring for each other with dignity and compassion," Seller says. "And he would've wanted that, more than anything."

* "Rent," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Opens next Sunday, 5 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Also: Oct. 5, 12, 19 and 26, Nov. 23 and 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21 and 28 and Jan. 4, 11 and 18, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 and 13, 2 p.m.; Nov. 24 and Dec. 22 and 29. Ticket are currently available for shows through Dec. 7; an additional six weeks will go on sale this Friday. Ends Jan. 18. $35-$70. (213) 628-2772.

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* THE FAN PHENOMENON

Why many "Rent"-ers just can't get enough. See Thursday's Calendar Weekend.

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