Seeing the huddled masses along 41st Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, you'd think the Times Square clean-up has failed. But these denizens aren't society castoffs. This is the Nederlander Theatre, where Rent, Jonathan Larson's prize-winning musical, has given birth to a new breed of theatre fan.
Many thought the producers of one of Broadway's most in-demand shows weren't thinking bottom line by putting 34 seats in the first two rows on sale for $20 each. But it was a brilliant idea.
The producers got something they hadn't bargained on: a cheerleader section that knows the show as well as the cast, that rocks to the rhythms of the guitar riffs, leads applause and standing ovations, roots loudly for the underdog, and boos the bourgeois. They even dress as their favorite Rent bohemians. These fans have evolved into a cult to rival anything at screenings of The RockyHorror Show.
These Rentaholics, as the high school and college kids‹and some older "kids"‹refer to themselves communicating via the internet and Playbill On-Line's Rent message boards and chat rooms, are a hardy bunch. Since the $20 tickets sell two hours prior to the performance, the line forms as one show begins and masses into the wee hours.
[With the opening of Rent's first national company at Boston's Shubert Theatre, a cult has begun there.]
When Justin Plowman, whose duties include "lobby control," arrives in the afternoon, the line is as many as 50 strong. Neither rain, cold or heat, snow, or dread of night deter the cult. Each can purchase two $20 tickets. [Security is provided weekends when many camp overnight.] Even when the line is long, Plowman noted that those "beyond realistically getting in refuse to leave. They hope for a miracle."
Many bring the items they would if waiting all night for rock concert or sporting event tickets: blankets, lawn chairs, sleeping bags. There's always music, backpacks with food and basic necessities, and knowledge of nearby restrooms. The line often turns into a slumber party. Camaraderie is the reason‹other than being nuts over the show‹a majority of those polled give for returning again and again.
"There's so much direct contact with the audience in the show," said Anthony Rapp who plays Mark Cohen, one of Rent's pivotal roles, "but we see the first two rows more easily. So we favor them. It's great when we're tired and the regulars keep rejuvenating us. We put out so much energy, it's incredible when it comes back tenfold."
Rapp, Rent's on-line "insider" since using the internet to get a pulse on response when the show was downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop, finds E-Mail and Playbill On-Line "a great way to connect beyond saying hello after the show. Great friendships have evolved and we've come to think of these fans as extended family."
Plowman knows the "vets" on a first name basis. Joel Torrance, a 31-year-old Manhattan investment banker who's weathered the line more than 30 times, has been crowned "Cult King." Torrance, who also studies law nights at Fordham University, has taken vacation days from work to get a prime line position. But why 30 plus times?
"I see a lot of shows," he said, "so I'm not prone to being dazzled, but Rent blows me away. It gets better each time. There's the score and staging, but it's the cast that takes it over the top with the energy and emotion they bring. They're solid with not one weak link."
"The wait in line is never boring," claims Michele Moran, a 26-timer in the line who majors in Production Theatre at Hunter College. "Every time there's an adventure, whether it's pitching a tent, watching "Seinfield" on a TV hooked up to a car battery, or meeting a runaway who's now a good friend. Or thinking up creative answers to the question 'What are you waiting for' My fave answers are: Godot, or auditions for Big, State Fair, or Cats.
"I go back for many reasons. The show touches me and still makes me cry, though in different parts. It depends on the actors's mood. The cast are the nicest bunch and get a kick out of us 'regulars.' "
Anish Khanna, 22, of New Jersey is a "baby on line," having only seen the show from the "cheap seats" ten times, said "I'm interested in seeing how others respond and some just don't get it. I heard a lady at intermission ask, 'What happened to that nice Spanish boy named Angel? He just disappeared.' Hopefully, she picked up on his persona in the second act!"
The long-distance winners are Rochester's Tonya Stevens, a McDonald's assistant manager, and Derek Bowley, a Gap salesperson, who consider Rent "to be our new obsession."
They've driven seven hours on six occasions, including this month's [January] performance on the [one year] anniversary of Larson's death. With college friends and family members, they park, hang out overnight in line, buy their tickets, clean up, grab snacks, see the show, visit the cast, and return home.
Others come from Maryland, Long Island, and throughout Manhattan's boroughs. For many, Rent is their first Broadway show‹though they don't like to think of it as Broadway. Experiencing what's become a major uptown event in its transition from humble roots, has made many curious to see other shows.
Most rememarable, when observing the cult at various performances, is their sheer joy and enthusiasm‹the type rarely encountered on Broadway. Rapp admitted this sometimes gets out of hand and is offputting to the cast and those in higher priced seats.
Rent's "cheap tickets" line has a certain magnetism, even affecting Rapp. "There's a part of me that wants to do it when I leave the show."
-- By Ellis Nassour