After 5,140 performances over the course of 12 years, the groundbreaking Broadway rock-musical "Rent" today will have its final curtain call.
In 1996, "Rent" quickly went from a small off-Broadway theater to the Great White Way, where today it's the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history. From its humble roots, there was little to suggest the worldwide smash it would become.
Loosely based on Puccini's opera, "La Bohème," "Rent" is about young artists struggling to get by, living in New York City's once-grungy East Village in the mid-1980s. Its characters are gay, straight, cross-dressers and strippers who are facing hardships like AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness.
"We all love, we all lose people, we all struggle with identity," said Gwen Stewart, an original "Rent" Broadway cast member who has returned to the cast for the show's closing.
"I think that's why people love "Rent" so much, because they identify with the different stories that were told," Stewart said.
People did identify, and came to see the show in droves. With its energetic cast and loud, lively rock score, "Rent" gave Broadway a much-needed jolt of life, bringing in a young, new audience. Realizing the financial constraints of its audience, "Rent" even offered $20 tickets at every performance, allowing fans ("Rentheads," they call themselves) to come back dozens of times.
When "Rent" drew critical acclaim as well, winning four Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the show's appeal brought in older audience members too.
This musical was no "Cats" or "Les Misérables," both hits when "Rent" debuted, but the characters and the music and lyrics offered something vulnerable and human that people could relate to.
"It was so fantastic to see young people and older people sitting together and responding emotionally to a piece," said Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role of Mimi Marquez, an HIV-positive junkie stripper.
"It was, you know, tawdry and it was about people you don't want your kids to know, ever," she said. "And yet despite that, the spirits and the love of these people and just, the splendor of these characters resounded."
"Rent" has grossed $280 million during its Broadway run and more than $630 million worldwide. Since taking Broadway by storm, "Rent" has become a global phenomenon, playing in more than 26 countries across six continents.
"There's success, and there's success, and then there's 'Rent,'" said Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic at the New York Times.
Tommasini became part of the "Rent" family quite by accident. He attended the show's final dress rehearsal before it was set to begin its off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop. He'd heard that a bright, young playwright named Jonathan Larson had made a modern-day musical based on "La Bohème."
Tommasini interviewed Larson that night in the theater's tiny box office, the only quiet place they could find. Larson spoke optimistically about the show's future and his own as a composer.
After the interview, Larson returned home to his apartment in the West Village, which was very much like the one his characters Mark Cohen and Roger Davis inhabit in "Rent." Soon after, he collapsed and died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old.