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."
Success Followed Tragedy
"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.
"It was like I had lost a brother," Stewart said. "We were just like, this has got to be a mistake. I mean, he's 35 years old. He's at the pinnacle of his career. He's got this amazing show that's, you know, just amazing and wonderful and how can he not be here to enjoy the success?"
Tommasini said he hopes that his small role on the last day of Larson's life may have provided him with a glimpse of the huge success his show would become.
"[Larson's] father told me, the only hint Jonathan had in his life that that kind of success might come to him was that I showed up from the New York Times to interview him and I told him I that I liked his show," Tommasini said.
Larson's untimely death brought one of "Rent's" key phrases, "No Day but Today," vividly to life. Lyrics like "Dying in America at the end of the millennium, dying in America to come into our own," from the song "What You Own" suddenly echoed the fact that the man who had created this show would never know its meteoric rise.
"The message is so true," Tommasini said. "That people see themselves in these young characters would not carry at all if the music and words were not so good."
The success of "Rent" is little solace to Larson's father, Al Larson, who attended the show earlier this week.
"Wonderful as this has been, the show and everything that's gone on in connection with it, I'd still scrap it all for Jonathan being here," he said.
Larson said the entire family has been blown away by the musical's triumphs.
"Our hope was that it would have a nice off-Broadway run for a few months, and that would have made Jonathan delighted," Larson said. "Part of the tragedy of his not living is that God knows how many more great shows, great songs he would have written if he had lived."
Message Lives On
Tonight won't be the last chance for fans to catch the show. A national tour with original cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal kicks off in January, and a movie version of "Rent" that was filmed live on Broadway will be released in theaters nationwide later this month.
Rubin-Vega says "Rent" will be able to stand the test of time because of its innocence and enthusiasm about celebrating life.
"What I want people to take away from 'Rent' is far less [important] than what many people have already taken away from it, which is a complete inspiration to be who you are," she said. "I think that's as simple as it can get – to really celebrate, accept, and enjoy who you are, and to live in the moment."
Cast member Stewart said she has seen how the musical has affected audiences, and she shares that feeling.
"I met tons and tons of fans that just stand there and bawl and can't explain why," she said.
"I'm like, I understand," she said. "You don't have to say anything. I totally understand. I live with it eight times a week. It's a very moving piece and people will love it forever."