No Day But Today: Broadway's Rent Sign Comes Down Sept. 7
By Kenneth Jones
Rent, the landmark Broadway musical that melded a rock sound with story and character like no other musical before it, ends its 12-year run Sept. 7 at the Nederlander Theatre.
At its close, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning musical by the late lyricist-librettist-composer Jonathan Larson will have played 5,124 performances and 16 previews, making it the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Critics and fans observed that what made the show so groundbreaking was not its use of a current pop sound (Hair, Dreamgirls and Promises, Promises had done that before), but the intricacy and depth of the marriage between music, lyric, character and message.
Larson, who famously and tragically died at age 35 of heart disease linked to Marfan Syndrome — on Jan. 25, 1996, the day before the show's first preview Off-Broadway — used Puccini's opera La Bohème as a jumping-off point for his own 1990s-set show about lovers and artists struggling to connect in the age of AIDS.
Sex, death, prejudice, artistic expression, media, celebrity, selling out, friendship, existential angst — and "how about love?," as one lyric goes — are among ideas in the musical, directed by Michael Greif on designer Paul Clay's spare and utilitarian set. Greif's directing career blossomed following Rent's 1996 Off-Broadway bow, the Broadway transfer and its international success. He would revisit the show and help maintain its quality throughout its Broadway life.
Members of the original cast — showbiz nobodies, for the most part — found themselves in a national spotlight (on the Tonys, on the cover of Newsweek, in gossip columns) and their careers were made.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Adam Pascal were nominated for acting Tonys for their work as HIV-infected lovers and artists Mimi (an exotic dancer who likes the night life, seeking to go "Out Tonight") and Roger (a rock singer-songwriter aching to have "One Song Glory"). He would later star in Broadway's Aida and as a replacement Emcee in Cabaret, and she was cast in the revivals of Les Misérables and The Rocky Horror Show and was again Tony-nommed for her turn in Anna in the Tropics. Both also have pop singing careers, as do other original cast members.
The original cast also included breakout players Anthony Rapp (who later starred in Broadway's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and is now appearing in his own Rent-inspired stage memoir, Without You, based on his book) as Mark, Taye Diggs (who snagged TV deals in recent years) as Benny, Idina Menzel (who married Diggs, and later won a Tony as Elphaba in Wicked) as Maureen), Jesse L. Martin (who later landed a life-changing job on TV's "Law & Order") as Tom Collins, plus principals Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Tom's lover, Angel, and Fredi Walker as Joanne, Maureen's lover. Heredia was the one actor to win the Tony for his performance.
Gwen Stewart was a soloist in the show's Act Two opener, the anthemic "Seasons of Love." She's also in the final Broadway company. The two-disc cast album includes a version of the song by Stevie Wonder, with cast members, as an extra track.
Rent is produced on Broadway by Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon. A new national tour starring Pascal and Rapp as pals Roger and Mark will launch in 2009. The duo returned to the Broadway company for a limited engagement in 2007, boosting box office and prompting rock-concert-like throngs at the stage door after performances.
According to the producers, Rent grossed over $280 million during its Broadway run.
The Aug. 20 performance was filmed for cinema presentation, and elements of the final performance will also be filmed for the limited engagement movie theatre release, with special appearances by original cast members. (This is not to be confused with the 2005 feature film, which reunited — in a rare Hollywood move — most of the original Broadway cast. Walker and Rubin-Vega did not play their roles.)
The producers proudly point out that Rent was responsible for helping to usher in a number of important changes to Broadway and its marketing, "including the use of simpler, more contemporary advertising and logo design" and "the institution of same day front row seats priced at $20."
It was the first show to sell same-day orchestra seats for $20, in a curbside lottery system. Rent attracted a huge number of repeat visitors who came to be known as Rentheads. (That's who was screaming nightly from the first two rows, in case you ever wondered. The sold-out final performance also offered cheap tickets via lottery.)
Tours of Rent have played the country almost continuously since late 1996, and the U.S. nationals tours have grossed over $330 million.
The musical has been translated into every major language and been performed on six continents, including in the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Rent also inspired a new generation of theatre writers. Nick Blaemire, who wrote songs for Broadway's short-lived 2008 musical Glory Days, told Playbill.com earlier this year, "Obviously people have been doing this for a long time — we're not the first people to be writing a pop musical. I remember hearing Rent and thinking, 'Oh my God, these people are singing like they speak — and there's no pretense. If that was possible…why don't we just give it a shot?'"
The final cast of Rent includes Tracie Thoms (who was the movie's Joanne) as Joanne, Will Chase as Roger, Renèe Elise Goldsberry as Mimi, Eden Espinosa as Maureen, Michael McElroy as Collins, Adam Kantor as Mark, Justin Johnston as Angel and (original ensemble member) Rodney Hicks as Benny with Shaun Earl, Andrea Goss, Marcus Paul James, Telly Leung, Tracy McDowell, Jay Wilkison, (original ensemble member) Gwen Stewart and Destan Owens.
Rent opened on Broadway April 29, 1996, following a sold-out, extended limited engagement at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. Set in the grungy East Village, the show found a natural home on Broadway in the shabby, grungy, unrefined Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street. A paint job and renovation are likely at the venue following Rent, though if another properly shaggy show finds a home there, perhaps a facelift will be delayed.
Rent won every major best musical award, including the Tony Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award.
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