`Rent' has reinvented the musical on Broadway. Can an HIV rock opera do the same here?
THERE are no two ways about it: Rent came as bolt out of the blue. A contemporary rock opera in which La Boheme meets HIV was no-one's idea of a smash-hit, but at its explosive Broadway opening two years ago, Rent was hailed as having single-handedly reinvented the musical for a whole new generation. It won everything in sight, including the Pulitzer prize; it's still doing 100 per cent business despite a top price of $80; and on Tuesday it opens at London's Shaftesbury Theatre.

There are a hundred and one local factors from subject matter - love in the time of Aids - to its milieu - grungy East Village types struggling with the art vs money conundrum - which explain the show's monster success, but will it travel? "Hey!," laughs Jeffrey Seller, its young, excitable and, presumably, now wealthy, producer. "I feel like there's a referendum going on here. Will Rent work in London?"

Well, will it? There's solid insurance up front with four of the show's original leads reprising their roles, but variations on Shaw's "two nations divided by a common language" can be heard resounding around the industry. At its simplest, Rent, the creation of the late composer, writer and lyricist Jonathan Larson, follows a year in the life of three young couples who fall in and out of love. So what's the problem? Take a look at the context. The easy mix of race, gender and sexuality springs naturally from the world in which it was created, but that's a long way from London's West End. Similarly, Larson's reimagining of, say, Puccini's tubercular heroine Mimi as an HIV-positive drug-user reflects the horrific incidence of HIV infection in Manhattan but thus far, for many people, London's rate of infection just doesn't have the same urgency.

Conversely, Seller can take solace from the fact that the West End has lately grown more adventurous. Trainspotting, Popcorn and notably Shopping and Fucking have confounded expectations by not only enjoying almost indecently healthy runs, but also attracting an adventurous new young audience into the theatrical heartland. As in New York, he's courting that crowd with a youth-orientated marketing campaign (the posters don't even say it's a musical) and pounds 10 day tickets for anyone who wants to queue for front row seats. A West End cinema ticket can cost about that.

With successful previews behind him - "I'm hearing whistling and laughter and thunderous applause seven or eight times a night - he brims with confidence, believing that the show's relationships win over audiences, even those to whom the plot elements might seem foreign.

He cites the three versions currently touring the USA and Canada. "In Dallas, Texas, which is the hotbed of what we might call conservative, right-wing assholes, we sold out. That wasn't because of the racial mix, HIV or the bohemianism. We win them over with heart. Ultimately, it's a story about young people trying to realise their version of the American Dream, and trying to figure out how to love and connect. Getting together and breaking up, we all know about that."

The British production is acknowledged to be a risk, but Seller has gambled before and won. In 1990 he was a booker for tours of everything from the Flying Karamazov Brothers and David Copperfield to Topol of Fiddler on the Roof. He was 25, stuck in middle-management and bored. "It's fair to say," he announces proudly, "that I hated my job." He filled his spare time working on off-off-Broadway shows with friends, one of whom invited him to see a try-out of a rock monologue by someone no-one had ever heard of. "There's this rock band on stage and out comes this tall, lanky guy with curly hair named Jonathan Larson who launches into the story of him showing up at his surprise birthday party and facing the fact that he's 30, broke, his bathtub's in the kitchen, his friends are moving into more fancy apartments and he's still working in a diner and nobody wants to produce his musicals. Should he continue or take the job he's been offered in an ad agency?"

Seller was bowled over. "It was the first time I'd experienced a musical that was talking directly to me and I had a very strong, visceral response to the music." He wrote to Larson outlining his own shaky producer credentials and two weeks later they forged the beginning of a professional relationship that culminated in Rent.

The show itself progressed through years of try-outs and rewrites. Seller took three friends along to an early reading in 1993. "It was inchoate, musically very powerful, but it was just a seed of what was to come and he hadn't yet developed plot or character." Two of his friends left at the interval and the third advised him to persuade Larson to drop it and move to the next work. Over a year later, after hooking up with director Michael Greif, Larson pulled Seller back to a workshop version. "I took my business partner and to cover myself I said `this is either going to be brilliant or a piece of shit' but by Mimi's entrance with "Light My Candle" we were hooked." He struck a deal to help finance a production at New York Theatre Workshop in return for the future commercial rights.

His instincts were sound. The reviews for the 1996 NYTW production were ecstatic and tickets simply vanished but this off-off-Broadway venue with its large, deep stage only seats 150. With a cast of fifteen and five musicians it made no financial sense. Broadway proper, however, remained an intimidating dream.

"But I got a feeling, `if this show can't play Broadway then I gotta do something else with my career'. I grew up wanting to work there and I thought, `if this isn't Broadway then Broadway ain't me any more'. Lawyers, friends and everyone told me `I know you got great reviews, but do you know how many times the word `death' is mentioned in those reviews? The downtown audience won't go uptown and the uptown audience won't go to a `death' show. Go off-Broadway, you'll run forever'." Undeterred, he played a hunch and re-opened the show in Broadway's derelict Nederlander Theatre, virtually unused since 1980. Two years later and counting, Seller can luxuriate in the knowledge that he was right.

Part of his conviction stemmed from the unusually convincing chemistry between Larson's dramatic material and his use of rock music. "Most kids who grow up wanting to write Broadway shows don't know the rock vernacular. Then you have middle-aged rock'n'roll people who see an audience for the music, but they don't have the experience of writing character or plot- driven song. Jonathan grew up in the 70s and loved Billy Joel and Elton John ... he knew how to get the pump of an electric guitar into music that tells a story."

The analysis is right. Rock musical hits are virtually non-existent. Hair had a great score and novelty value (its youthful, iconoclastic view and the nudity) but was really a revue and Jesus Christ Superstar is far more successful musically than dramatically. Even Paul Simon had a mega- flop with The Capeman. The staging of Tommy collapsed over here although it had much longer run in the USA. Even there it barely made a profit. According to Seller, investors made two cents on every dollar for the New York run. The smart guys who paid for Rent have more than quadrupled their investment. (Now you know why people keep producing expensive musicals).

There was one other reason for the storm of publicity surrounding the workshop production. Hours after the dress rehearsal, Jonathan Larson suddenly died of an aortic aneurysm. He never saw his success. "You didn't have to know him to mourn him. He was a bohemian artist with a bathtub in his kitchen who until six weeks before he died was working in a diner. It was like he almost became a character in his own play. It was a strange, awful fate that got a lot of press," acknowledges Seller, quietly.

"Did it help catapult Rent into the stratosphere? Yes. Did it have anything to do with its long-term success? No. Three years later people are still going because they want to see the show."

`Rent' is at the Shaftesbury Theatre (0171-379 5399) pounds 10 tickets are available two hours before curtain-up.