Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON CLOSING NIGHT: Rent — For Closure
Rent's last stand at the Nederlander Sept. 7 began with a benediction first used 5,124 performances ago when the pop-rock phenomenon initially bowed on Broadway.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Jesse L. Martin, Michael Greif and family, Byron Utley, Adam Kantor and Will Chase, Michael McElroy, Renee Elise Goldsberry with Tracie Thoms and Eden Epinosa.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Jesse L. Martin, Michael Greif and family, Byron Utley, Adam Kantor and Will Chase, Michael McElroy, Renee Elise Goldsberry with Tracie Thoms and Eden Epinosa. Photo by Wilson Morales

Once the cast of 15 strolled on stage and hit their respective marks — and after the protracted and jubilant applause subsided — Adam Kantor (who plays the narrator and camcorder-chronicler of the story, Mark Cohen) stepped center stage and spoke the words that touched off another emotional outpouring of audience affection: "Like we did when we opened, we dedicate this performance to Jonathan Larson."

Larson never knew he had written the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history. Only 35, he died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the night of the final dress rehearsal for the show's Off-Broadway lift-off—Jan. 24, 1996—one week shy of the 100th anniversary of the world-premiere of the piece that inspired Rent.

Since the plight of struggling young artists balancing poverty and creative impulses knows no boundaries in time and place, Larson opted to transplant the plot of La Bohème from mid-nineteenth century Paris to New York's Lower East Side in the AIDS-era of the eighties. And to convey the sound of his time, he concocted a dangerously uncharted, hypnotic blend of rock, reggae, Motown, salsa, et cetera. It caught the ear of a generation.

The passing of Rent, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and virtually every Best Musical award going in 1996, was not a klieg light occasion, but it was super-well attended by the whole theatre community as well as a task force of press people.

There were even motion picture cameras in place on the two aisles of the Nederlander to capture the evening forever. If you couldn't get into this sensational sign-off performance, take heart: The results will be shown in select movie theatres for a special limited engagement Sept. 24, 25, 27 and 28, courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing's new special programming division, The Hot Ticket. Sony also released Chris Columbus' 2005 screen translation (with almost all of the original stage cast). Two-thirds of the original cast came forth first at the curtain: Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Fredi Walker-Browne, Gilles Chiasson, Wilson Jermaine Heredia (the designated Tony winner of the ensemble), Timothy Britten Parker and, currently back in the cast, Rodney Hicks and Gwen Stewart. With three of the original understudies (Yassmin Alers, Shelley Dickinson and Mark Setlock), that came to 13 bodies in a row. Missing in action were Adam Pascal, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Kristen Lee Kelly and Aiko Nakasone.

Then there were 50-plus cast alumnae, including Frenchie Davis, Wilson Cruz, Jai Rodriguez, Luther Creek, Amy Spangler and Antonique Smith. And, last but no way least, the cast tapped to do the honors one last time: Will Chase, Kantor, Michael McElroy, Hicks, Tracie Thoms, Justin Johnston, Renèe Elise Goldsberry, Eden Espinosa, Tracy McDowell, Marcus Paul James, Swenson, Jay Wilkison, Telly Leung, Shaun Earl and Andrea Goss.

"There are so many returning cast members," the show's Tony-winning director, Michael Greif, noted euphorically. "It feels fantastic to have all these people who love the show all in one place — and to have the Larsons and the producers and the New York Theatre Workshop so proud of the show. And, I also feel great that they are making a terrific recording of this production. The show was in beautiful shape tonight, and I'm really proud of how we went out. There's a lot to be thankful for."

Allan Larson, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Nan and Julie Larson
photo by Wilson Morales

Al and Nan Larson, the author's parents, and his sister, Julie, were profoundly moved by the performers and the performance, and they spoke to the press as best they could. "We're a family of words and usually pretty articulate, but I think words are failing us right now," said the sister. "Our feelings are very multidimensional." "Heartwarming is the only word I can use," volunteered Mrs. Larson. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The total response was just overwhelming. We're very moved."

Jai Rodriguez, Penn Badgley and Blake Lively, Lin-Manuel Miranda and girlfriend Vanessa, Antonique Smith, Luther Creek with Amy Spanger, and Michael Berresse
photos by Wilson Morales

If ever there were producers who had earned their fedoras — à la the producers in The Producers — it was the triumvirate behind Rent: Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon. They defied the conventional wisdom and scored unconventional hits. And, they continued to do that in the shows that have followed. Seller and McCollum are down to their last two Tony winners on Broadway — Avenue Q and In the Heights. Performers from those shows lent glitter to the evening, as did those from their [title of show] and the dear departed Drowsy Chaperone.

Getting Rent off the ground was not a scary experience, as Seller remembers it. "It didn't feel like a risk at the time — or maybe it was just this kind of risk that was so worth doing. All I know is that we had to do it, and that made it all so easy.

"I got on my bicycle and went to the theatre at noon today to watch the lottery, and there were so many kids lined up on both sides of the street. I hung out there for a bit, then I went into the theatre, and I just started crying — at this celebration and at this loss. Tonight, I was able to watch the show, love the show, enjoy the performance and find some reconciliation, a feeling that it's time to move on."

Sadness also laced McCollum's reflections. "I had a surreal time tonight because it was bittersweet," he said. "I was overwhelmed by the amazing talent of the cast and how many lives this show has touched — and the loss of Jonathan. No matter how successful this show became, Jeffrey and I knew early on it would always be clouded by the loss of Jonathan. Our job as producers is to breath life into his words. People say, 'How do you cast such great people?' And I say, 'We cast great people because Jonathan wrote a show about building a community where love wins.' It's really not about the money. It's about building a family. As a producer, I've always believed money is the tool. It's not the destination. The destination is what family you build."

He takes pride in venturing off the beaten path: "I love original material. I love giving young artists an opportunity to have their dreams come true." [See his [title of show].] "If I can help somebody achieve their dreams, I've had a full life." That said, it has to be noted that his next two shows are somewhat less than original — the arrival on Broadway, after five years of circling the airport, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and a reinvestigation of West Side Story, helmed by the original scripter, Arthur Laurents.

The former, said McCollum, "makes no economic sense on Broadway. We're going to lose money, but if I can excite people about White Christmas on stage and it's on Broadway, then it will be A Broadway Show, and maybe people will pay attention to it even more because it was on Broadway. Broadway is the pinnacle for those of us who love the theatre. With all the problems and all the things that I am committed to helping make better, I hope Broadway becomes a more hospitable environment to new talent. It's very difficult. We have a lot of movies-into-musicals, and I'm a great believer in original talent, but one of the things I love about White Christmas is that most people have only heard Irving Berlin in cabaret. When you hear Irving Berlin with a full orchestra, you realize that was the transition from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, and my generation doesn't understand how important Irving Berlin is."

How full an orchestra? "I'm in the middle of negotiating that. I can't tell you right now. I'm asking for a few concessions because South Pacific can run forever. I can only run for seven weeks, so I need some slight concessions. It's not called South Thanksgiving. It's called White Christmas so I can only run seven weeks, especially this year — an election year. I have to wait till the election before people buy tickets."

He opens West Side Story Dec. 16 in Washington D.C.'s National Theatre, where it was originally launched in 1957, and will open on Broadway "at a theatre we're going to name in about three weeks. When Arthur called and said, 'I think it should also be bilingual,' I said, 'Okay, I'm in.' Even though it's a revival, it's a fresh take. I'm excited about that. We're talking to Lin-Manuel Miranda about translating Sondheim into Spanish. He has met with Arthur. He's going to meet with Stephen. It's just a consult right now. We're just asking him to contribute ideas, and we'll see what happens."

Co-producer Gordon, whose next Broadway show is the musicalization of the Drew Barrymore movie Ever After, isn't so quick about letting Rent go. "Every day, to me, has been amazing how far it's come. And the sadness is that Jonathan's not here. "But the show's not done. Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp are doing a tour, starting in January. It'll go to Japan, it'll go to Korea, it's going to be 30 weeks in the U.S., so we're very excited about that. And we're doing subsidiary rights — a lot of theatre productions in colleges and high schools. And then, it's time for a revival, right?

"The movie helped the show. The advertising stayed up for four months after the movie closed. It gave a big boost to the show, no question about it. And the cinecast is unbelievable. In about three weeks we're going to have it in about 500 movie theatres. We're finishing it tonight. Really new technology — it's high definition."

The closing-night contingent included New York Theatre Workshop's James C. Nicola and Heather Randall; The Nederlanders pere et fils; Troy Britton Johnson (resting on laurels recently won in the Jack Cassidy slot of Williamstown's She Loves Me); Priscilla Lopez; Christy Carlson Romano (in transition from Beauty and the Beast to Avenue Q — whew!); playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman; Seth Rudetsky; photographer Jill Krementz; West Side Story's Joey McNeely; High Fidelity composer and lyricist Tom Kitt and Amanda Green; publicist and newly minted "lobbyist" Shirley Herz; director Christopher Ashley; Doug Wright; composer Stephen Flaherty; Scott Elliott; Bob Martin; Avenue Q's Tony-winning scripter Jeff Whitty (figuring his new musical book for Tales of the City is "less than two years from blast-off"); Blake Lively of TV's "Gossip Girl"; The Little Mermaid's Derrick Baskin with Avenue Q's Carmen Ruby Floyd; Freda Harris; producers David Bender and David Stone; director David Saint; In the Heights director, librettist and orchestrator Thomas Kail, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Bill Sherman, Walter Bobbie; critics Charles Isherwood, Jeremy Gerard and Peter Travers; Rick Lyon; and Hairspray's Tony-winning book writer Mark O'Donnell in his Cry-Baby T-shirt ("I like to say, 'I am Mrs. Norman Maine.' I still declare myself co-author of Cry-Baby!").

In the Heights' Tony-winning Miranda had no illusions about his show overtaking Rent: "I don't think any show could pass Rent in terms of the way it has changed the climate of Broadway. We're still feeling the effects of Rent. All I can tell you is that I saw Rent on my 17th birthday. I was taken by my high-school sweetheart, and it's certainly the reason I'm standing here today. It was the first show I saw that took place now. It felt autobiographical. It felt like he was writing about people he loved, and that's what I've tried to do. I did the matinee of Heights today and I just kept hearing Rent quotes. I'd say, 'Okay, this is the 'La Vie Boheme' section here in Heights.' I think today is a day to reflect on Jonathan and on his incredible legacy."

The final curtain at <i>Rent.</i>
The final curtain at Rent. Photo by Wilson Morales
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