After 12 Seasons of Love, “Rent” Closes on Broadway


Published: October 02, 2008

This September, after 12 years at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater, Jonathan Larson’s musical landmark “Rent” took its final bow. This show, which is based on “La Boheme,” depicts young artists on the Lower East Side, some of whom are living with AIDS, and tells the story of their struggle to create and survive. The show’s closing celebration began at the Tony Awards in June, with a performance of “Seasons of Love” by the original cast, and finished when the curtain fell on “Rent” on Sept. 7.

“Rent,” the seventh longest running Broadway show,  holds a unique place in theatre history.  In the 1970s, “Hair” was revolutionary in translating hippie culture to the stage; in the 1990s, “Rent” filled a similar role, becoming the first musical to really explore both the realities of AIDS and youth Bohemian culture on Broadway. Says playwriting student Samantha Schoer, FCLC ’09, “In a sea of Disney and cookie-cutter musicals, ‘Rent’ deals with real, emotional issues…When people watched the play they saw themselves in those characters’ struggles.”

The show’s most enthusiastic fans, self-titled Rent-Heads, are mostly in their 20s and feel that “Rent” really spoke to the most important issues of their time.  Schoer feels that when “Rent” came along, it brought a welcome change from traditional fare for the theatre.  “It spoke to a generation dealing with the scare of drugs and AIDS, poor artists without housing and the [LGBT] population of NYC,” explains Schoer.  Communications professor Monique Fortune feels that young people identify with “Rent” because, “They might be able to identify with Mimi’s fight with addiction; perhaps they can relate to Angel’s compassion and cynicism or Roger’s anger and confusion.”

Since the “tribal-love-rock” musical “Hair” in the 1960s, the rock sound had all but vanished from Broadway until “Rent” appeared 28 years later on the exact same Public Theatre stage. According to theatre professor Morgan Jenness, the music of “Rent” was less Broadway and more rock than other musicals. “[‘Rent’] had a soft rock score rather than the usual musical theater sound…so it felt more accessible to young people,” she noted.  Larson, a protégée of Stephen Sondheim, was determined to combine different sounds in his show, not just to utilize the rock vibe.  In the documentary “Broadway: The American Musical,” James C. Nicola from New York Theatre Workshop remembers, “The first stage direction was that there was a full Broadway orchestra in the pit and a rock band on the stage.”

Although “Rent” has now closed, its “descendants”—from “Spring Awakening” to “Avenue Q” to “Passing Strange” to “In the Heights”—are going strong. Last year’s Tony Awards were dominated by “Spring Awakening,” which, according to Jenness, “pulled staging, casting, even the soft rock music score [from ‘Rent.’] I don’t think ‘Spring Awakening’ would have flown as it did without “Rent” opening the door…”

“Rent-head” Matt Conlin, FCLC ’09, notes that as a result of “Rent,” “A lot of shows now are talking about serious social conditions, [and] for shows breaking stereotypes, we have ‘Avenue Q.’” “Rent” was the gateway for all kinds of new ideas, sounds and styles on Broadway. Fortune noted that because of the revolutionary “Rent,” on Broadway, today, “You can do congas, the tango—do whatever!”

She added, “Larson changed the game. He wanted to present theatre that was not always pretty, but was always honest…Because of Jonathan Larson’s foundation, there is a greater opportunity for a wide range of gifted artists to work on Broadway and bring the truth, beauty, ugliness, guts and power to the stage.”