By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Nine hundred thirty thousand, one hundred eighty minutes.
That’s how you measure the total running time “Rent” will have played on Broadway when, as the producers said on Tuesday, it closes after its evening performance on June 1, making it the seventh-longest-running Broadway show in history.
But the length of its run is not nearly as significant as the kind of show it was. An East Village rock version of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” “Rent” brought a youthful energy — and young theatergoers — to Broadway, to a degree not seen since “Hair.” It also brought with it a real-life story so affecting that it would have overwhelmed the musical itself had the substance of the musical not been so intertwined with the story of its creation.
On the night of the final dress rehearsal at the New York Theater Workshop, the nonprofit theater in the East Village where the musical began, Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old composer and librettist, died of an aortic aneurysm. He had been working for seven years on the musical, which includes portraits of his friends and the artists and addicts in his neighborhood, young people on the edge of poverty and in the shadow of AIDS, battling the coming wave of gentrification in the name of “La Vie Bohème.”
The show opened in February 1996, two and half weeks after Mr. Larson’s death. Critics were ecstatic, Broadway landlords were battling to play host to an uptown transfer, and everyone in town, including celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Anna Wintour, was scrambling to get tickets to a 150-seat Off Broadway theater in the East Village. Already a theater phenomenon, “Rent,” directed by Michael Greif, exploded onto Broadway two months later, on April 16, 1996, turning members of its mostly obscure cast into stars. It went on to win four Tony Awards, including best musical, and the Pulitzer Prize.
The original cast, which included the now familiar names Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, suddenly appeared everywhere, including the cover of Newsweek, marking the first time since “A Chorus Line” that a Broadway musical was on the cover of a national newsmagazine.
“One day you can’t afford to get Chinese-food takeout, and suddenly you’re getting free meals at Balthazar,” said Ms. Rubin-Vega, who added that the public obsession with the show, and the story behind it, seemed disquietingly macabre at the time.
The show’s Broadway home is the Nederlander Theater, which had long been dark before “Rent” moved in, but which was transformed into a bohemian playground of leopard-print carpets and graffitied walls. All along West 41st Street, so-called Rentheads, legions of young fanatics watching the show for the millionth time, can be seen lining up on 41st Street, sometimes overnight, for $20 day-of-show tickets.
“Rent,” which cost $240,000 to put up downtown, has gone on to gross more than $280 million on Broadway and another $330 million on the road. Productions have been mounted on six continents. A movie version of the show, which starred almost all of the original cast, opened in 2005, although it was a box-office failure.
Dependent as “Rent” is on a young audience and fueled by the occasional celebrity casting announcement, its grosses could be erratic. But recently the show’s take at the box office was consistently less than its costs. A closing date was on the horizon, and after some not entirely amicable back-and-forth, the Broadway producers, Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon, agreed to a guarantee to keep the show running through June 1.
“Something happened with us in the fall in which we were consistently selling less tickets than we were last year and three or four years ago,” Mr. Seller said, citing new competition on Broadway like “Legally Blonde” and “Spring Awakening.” On the other hand, he said, when the show began, “I couldn’t have foreseen that we’d get to five years.”
Over the past 12 years, the Larson family has viewed the show as a source of pride as well as, in the words of Mr. Larson’s father, Al, “a constant reminder of something we don’t really want to be reminded about.”
In an interview from his home in Los Angeles, Mr. Larson said the ending of the show’s Broadway run would mean more shows in high schools and small theaters, a development he embraces. But, he said, “for essentially 12 years I’ve been saying I’d trade the whole business in if Jonny could still be alive. I still feel that way.”
I didn't really see this coming, but I'm not surprised. I think a lot of it had to do with the movie, which don't get me wrong -- I loved it, but I think the majority of people aren't going to make as much of an effort to see a Broadway show when they can just rent the DVD. (Though really you should go see it on Broadway or in the theatre if you haven't already!) I've seen the show off-Broadway two or three times and on-Broadway twice. The closing doesn't affect me terribly because after seeing Anthony and Adam reprise their roles as Mark and Roger I never intended to see the show again. I mean, why bother? Nothing will ever top that, nothing. If I had a pensieve and I could only put one memory in it? It would be that show. It was the most powerful thing I've ever seen in my life and if I think about it too much I'm going to start tearing up at work. I love this musical so much, it definitely changed my life. I'm going to be sad to see it go, sad that it won't have a permanent fixture somewhere, sad that future theatre-goers won't be able to experience it *on Broadway*. But it had an amazing run, more amazing than anyone ever expected, and I know my life was not the only one it changed. This wasn't your typical musical, it touched people, changed people, maybe more than any other musical ever has before. Like I said, I'm sad, but nothing lasts forever, and I know that on Broadway or not, this show is still going to change lives and bring enjoyment to future generations. Later, skaterz.