'Rent': Broadway's maudlin musical bohemians face final foreclosure

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The Independent US

Of course we stood in the stalls and of course we tried to raise the roof of the Nederlander Theatre on Times Square when the cast members of Rent completed its final number and took their bow. Truth be told, we were not that many in the audience on Thursday night. But a show of love from us was important.

It was only hours before that word of the calamity had begun to seep out. The gutsy musical, which is both jubilant and maudlin, chronicling the travails of a community of determined bohemians facing eviction from their unheated tenement in an East Village of bygone times, was itself to be evicted.

How do you measure four months and 22 days (and some additional hours and minutes)? That is the time the producers of Rent have given the musical before the curtain will come down – at least on its Broadway incarnation – one last time.

When the final performance arrives on 1 June, Rent will have run in this theatre for almost 12 years, distinguishing it as the seventh longest-running production in the Great White Way's history. Not quite Cats, but not bad for an effort originally conceived by the composer and librettist Jonathan Larson for an off-Broadway run in what was then the little-known New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village.

But longevity is the least of it. By any reckoning, Rent will be eulogised as a unique cultural landmark from the moment it burst into the national consciousness in the summer of 1996, making the front page of Newsweek, enthralling the critics – it won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize – and bringing numbers of young fans to Broadway not seen since the opening of Hair.

It was a financial bonanza, too. Mounted with a budget of just $240,000, Rent has gone on to gross more than $280m (£142m) on Broadway alone. Add to that the $330m earned in productions worldwide. From the very start there was a back story to the show as aching as its own narrative. It was on the night of the last dress rehearsal in the East Village that Mr Larson abruptly lost his life to an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 35.

Nor did he witness the frenzy that its opening generated and the near-lunatic affection of its young fans – the Rentheads. He would surely have been thrilled to have seen the impact on his ensemble of young singers and actors, who saw their career prospects instantly transformed. And the making in 2005 of a film version. Never mind that it was a box-office turkey.

Finally, though, receipts at the Nederlander started to dwindle in recent months. "Something happened with us in the fall in which we were consistently selling fewer tickets than we were last year and three or four years ago," the producer, Jeffrey Seller, told The New York Times. The portrait of the East Village was mould-breaking. It featured the homeless, lesbians, drag queens and was the first mainstream musical with a narrative squarely tackling Aids. But it is dated now and was possibly dated even before its first performance. The parable of creative youth battling the tides of gentrification in New York is tiresomely familiar.

"525,600 minutes, 525,600 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes – how do you measure, measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife. In 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year in the life? How about love? How about love? How about love? Measure in love. Seasons of love."

Let this, the ballad of Rent, echo over Broadway long after it has closed. For its season, after so long, is almost over.