By mid-morning April 27, police were moving in on a Lower East Side New York City building occupied by squatters for the past six years. Barricades have been set up, and women and children were being moved out of the building at 9th Street and Avenue C, while 20 or so "tenants" remained to protest the building's evacuation.
This very Rent-like situation comes just two days before the third anniversary of the Broadway opening of that musical, still running at the Nederlander Theater. The musical's motley array of performance artists, filmmakers, transvestites, musicians, drug users and pocket-empty young people remains a strong draw (sales at 85.1 percent of capacity for the week ending April 18), partly for its major plot point about characters being for or against the gentrification of a derelict Alphabet City apartment building.
Art imitates life: While protests, arrests and police encounters are reportedly happening in that real-life neighborhood, they are also being sung about on stage. Indeed, the setting of Rent is a building filled with artists who are living there without paying -- what else? -- rent.
A performance piece called "Over the Moon" (sung by character Maureen) is a metaphoric rant about the changing neighborhood, leading to the show's famous Act One closer, "La Vie Boheme."
As the show about penniless urbanites famously merchandises clothing and CDs, while promoting the spirit of free-living and dignity, in real life, squatters' rights advocates linked arms in front of the Lower East Side building but were arrested. The rest of the squatters remained inside, with police using jackhammers to cut in through the cement walls. According to WINS-AM radio, the squatters say they moved into the building six years ago and have fixed it up while they were staying there. A Rent spokesperson did not know if the show's cast or producers would make any kind of reference to or statement regarding the breaking events in the East Village. It was not clear if the company was aware of the unfolding events.
The spokesperson also said no special public events were planned for Rent's third anniversary April 29, though a small cast party is planned for early May.
Rent is resting easier now than it did since its dawning. On Jan. 25, 1996, the eve of starting Off Off-Broadway previews at New York Theater Workshop, Rent's author-composer Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. The show immediately went from being a downtown event to a national cause celebre, with a Pulitzer Prize following in April and a Broadway opening on the 29th of that month.
Larson's musical relocates the La Boheme story to AIDS-era East Village, New York. A penniless artist's passion for a young woman grows even as illness consumes her. The poet Rodolfo is now punk rocker Roger. Tubercular lacemaker Mimi is now an AIDS-infected dancer at an S&M nightclub. Painter Marcello is now filmmaker Mark Cohen, and so forth. The ending is transformed from the opera, but the theme of love enduring beyond all obstacles remains. Songs include: "La Vie Boheme," "I'll Cover You," "Seasons of Love," "Tango: Maureen" and "Santa Fe."
Rent would win the Tony Award and remain the hottest show on Broadway throughout the following season, but it often seemed the musical was playing out more in the courtroom than on stage. Both Cabrini and St. Vincent's Medical Centers were fined for misdiagnosing Larson with a stomach ailment. While that suit was initiated by Larson's family, they found themselves on the other end of a lawsuit when dramaturg Lynn Thomson, claiming to be a co-author, sued for a larger share of the show's profits. She lost, appealed, and then settled, reportedly getting a cash payment, a percentage, and title-page credit, though not official co-authorship.
While Rent plays on at the Nederlander, some original cast members have moved on. Anthony Rapp now stars as the title in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown; Idina Menzel, the original Maureen, made her debut as a solo recording artist with the Hollywood Records release, "Still I Can't Be Still." Adam Pascal will star in the revised Aida targeting Broadway next season. Daphne Rubin-Vega appeared in the film "Wild Things" and recreated her Mimi when Rent played in Los Angeles this past winter.
Meanwhile, Rent has already influenced other musicals, or at least their ability to be produced. Footloose, which staved off poor reviews to become one of the season's few musical hits, targets the same youthful market with a similarly youthful, energetic and hitherto unknown cast, while Bright Lights, Big City, staged by Rent director Michael Greif at NYTW, was criticized for (among other things) being too similar to Larson's show. What greater testament to Rent's influence than that both life and art are imitating art?