SWhen Rent first premiered on Broadway, the musical—a rock and roll mishmash polemic about New York City's poor bohemian youth, the AIDS epidemic, and the struggle and ultimate power of being oneself ("faggots, lezzies, dykes," whatever)—it seemed destined to get fabulous acclaim and burn out quickly. The acclaim most certainly arrived, Rent won a whole slew of Tonys and, indeed, the Pulitzer Prize for drama (so rarely awarded to musical works). But its longevity was a true surprise. The mythos surrounding its sexy young cast and the untimely death of the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, helped (along with crazed, devoted legions of "Rentheads") the show power through 12 years at the Nederlander on 41st street. It closed just last night. I managed to catch its penultimate performance on Saturday. I first saw Rent when I was 13 years old, at the Shubert theater in Boston. It was the first touring company, and they ended up doing a heavily extended six month run. I saw it five times with various combinations of friends. I saw it twice more when it returned in 2000 (17 years old, a little more cynical), sleeping overnight in front of the theater for $20 first or second row rush seats. So I was familiar, in a very distinct sense and muscle memory way, with the junk pile of a set that looms on stage when you walk in, that giddy feeling you have knowing that it will soon be warmed and lit up. I was soaking wet from the hurricane or tropical storm or whatever that passed through, and felt appropriately bedraggled in the Nederlander, which was completely overhauled, and yet distressed, when the show came in. I got a tiny and expensive little glass of red wine and asked the bartender what was coming in next. "Guys and Dolls," he said grumpily. A standing ovation greeted the cast as they walked out on stage at the top of the show. When they launched into the first salvo of sing-speaking and then the barnstormer song, "Rent," it was both pleasantly familiar and also a little off. The cast seemed a bit tired, as did the seats and the walls and even that trusty junky set. Or maybe it was just me, now maybe feeling too wet and too cold to really enjoy anything. Plus I was alone and still drinking the sad little wine and maybe feeling older and a little less bedazzled by these colorful young people's hyperbolic emotions. The performances were all fine, though some folks were a bit miscast. Mimi was a beautiful singer but too operatic for the scratchy, desperate role. Roger was even more melodramatic than usual, and Mark even more detached and forgettable. Eden Espinosa (from Wicked and that unfortunate Bklyn: The Musical) played a fun, chipper, kinda wholesome Maureen and Tracie Thoms, from the ughhhh movie version, was a strong and sexy Joanne. A couple of the original chorus members were back, which was fun to see but also a little...depressing. Things picked up as the first act zipped along (faster than I remembered), "Another Day" and "Christmas Bells" particular highlights. And then came the rainy and smoky intermission and the cast walking out in a line to sing "Seasons of Love," met by another standing ovation (getting tired from standing) and the death-filled, downer tumble of the second act ("Without You" was still lovely, if oversung). By the time the reliably stirring finale was belted, I admit I was won over all over again—if not by this particular cast and slightly wrong tempo and definite datedness of the material, certainly by the old, bittersweet, inclusive spirit of the show, still alive in the audience of, I'm guessing, mostly longtime devotees. Though my seatmates were newbies. I met Debbie, a woman who had seen the movie and loved its soundtrack. When her husband passed away two years ago, she took comfort in the soundtrack's (yes a bit hokey by now, but still something good and hopeful) message of survival and rememberance and weathering all things as best as one can. She said she loved the show and was very glad she'd finally stopped procrastinating and bought the ticket. To my right were Lily and TJ, two precocious 13-year-olds (the cirrrcle of liiiife). Both devoted theatre fans (I believe they said they'd seen Gypsy, which is sorta heavy stuff for their age, no?), TJ had seen Rent on stage before, while Lily had only seen the film. She said they were "obsessed" with the soundtrack. Throughout the show she rocked back and forth, sat as far forward in her seat as she could, and occasionally grabbed TJ and whispered something to him. She seemed rapt and enamored, and I felt briefly jealous that I couldn't enjoy the thing for the first time again. But I was glad that she could. After the long (and blessedly final) standing ovation, I turned to ask the kids' what their final impressions were. But they'd already disappeared into the crush of people cramming their way out of the theater. In some ways I was glad I didn't get to ask them. If they'd said something not so good I think I would have been crushed. I prefer to assume they loved it as I did when I was 13 and feeling revolutionary. And though I had maybe seen something not that good that night, I was still happy I'd made the effort one last time. The show will live on for years and years in tours and awkward, wobbly college productions, but here (and at the New York Theatre Workshop downtown) was where it had first bloomed and flourished. 12 years of "today," now ceding, finally, to tomorrow.
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