Early closure for US hit musical that failed to storm West End

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The Independent Online
THE SHOW was billed as the rock opera for the Nineties but, although it was a smash hit in New York, the musical Rent, about a nightclub dancer with Aids, is to close after only 18 months in the West End.

In spite of an aggressive marketing campaign and a themed singles night aimed at selling more tickets, the show never really took off in London, and yesterday its producers were reluctantly forced to concede defeat.

It was a different story in New York, where "Rentheads" queued every night to watch the show again and again. Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of the manslaughter of the baby Matthew Eappen, famously said that she had made friends among the queues of fans waiting to see the show for the zillionth time.

The show transposes Puccini's La Boheme, in which the heroine dies of TB, to contemporary Manhattan, where the club dancer has Aids and an ex- junkie songwriter is HIV-positive, and traces the lives of their struggling artistic friends.

When it opened last May the reviews were mixed, but what really made it into a cause celebre was the sudden death at the age of 35 of its writer, Jonathan Larson, after the final dress rehearsal.

That, and the tremendous advance publicity from New York, meant the production did extremely well to begin with, but audiences soon tailed off.

Matthew Gale, general manager of the show, which will close on 30 October, said yesterday that he was extremely disappointed.

"I still believe we have a vibrant show, but the problem is that a lot of people didn't really understand what it was about and it didn't really appeal to the traditional musical theatre-goer. We always struggled with attracting the traditional audience for musicals and we never really did group sales - and for most musicals nearly 40 per cent of their income is from those.

"We had some incredible weeks but they tended to coincide with college holidays."

He said the production had recouped almost half the initial investment and added that the decision to close was made before the show ended up losing what money they had made.

The show, which received three Olivier award nominations, at first broke box-office records at the Shaftesbury Theatre, grossing pounds 262,000 in one week.

But one observer said that hid the fact that Rent had never really been a success.

"It never really took off here although it was enormous in New York, but there was always a doubt that it would travel.

"The problem was that it was really a first draft, and if Larson hadn't died then he could have reworked it. I am surprised it lasted this long and I think it's possible that a lot of the audience was made up of US tourists who couldn't get in to see it in New York."

Mr Gale remained optimistic yesterday, taking comfort in the well-worn defence that the show was ahead of its time.

"I feel sure that some company will pick up the rights in the future and do a different production. The material is just too good for it to end there."

The cast features the former EastEnders actor Des Coleman, better known as Lenny, playing Benny, Jacqui Dubois as Joanne and Joe McFadden, currently starring in BBC1's Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll, as Mark. The show is directed by Michael Greif.