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How 'Rent' Ate Up the Road

With cross-generational appeal--and a savvy marketing strategy--'Rent' is selling out theaters far from its edgy East Village roots.

September 21, 1997|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

In August, 44-year-old Robert Trowbridge and his wife, Denise, were among the audience at an evening performance of "Rent" at the La Jolla Playhouse. A roofer from Escondido, Trowbridge hardly fit the demographic one might expect for a Broadway musical about New York's East Village bohemians, which includes a cross-dressing hero, lingering kisses between rubber-draped lesbians, heterosexual lovers who "meet cute" over a bag of heroin and homeless people with AIDS.

Nor, for that matter, did many of La Jolla's white, middle-age, wealthy subscribers in the audience, who at first seemed a bit wary of what kind of evening they were in for--despite the fact that "Rent"' is one of the most talked-about musicals in recent history and is the winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tonys.

Yet, near the end of the first act, Trowbridge reached over to take his wife's hand as Collins, the MIT dropout, sang "I'll Cover You" to his newly met transvestite lover, Angel. And to some extent, the roofer's gesture expressed a collective relief that seemed to be spreading through the audience as the show progressed. They realized they were not going to be offended, denigrated or made to feel un-hip by a show touted in a Newsweek cover story as "defining a new generation."

"We liked it," Trowbridge said after the performance, noting that his tickets had been a gift from a client. Although he and his wife do not often attend theater, they had heard about the musical beforehand, though not from the media. Their 14-year-old son, Robert, had sung some of the songs in a high school revue and is a fan. "He keeps playing that CD over and over again," said Trowbridge, betraying the kind of exasperation that 30 years ago parents had reserved for their children's fascination with "Hair."

Now, 17 months after "Rent" opened on Broadway, following a dramatic showcase run at New York Theatre Workshop that was tragically highlighted by the untimely death of Jonathan Larson, its 35-year-old creator, just before previews began, the ongoing saga of "Rent" is entering a new chapter in its phenomenal success as it opens at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre next Sunday for an 18-week run.

"Rent" is neither a commercial juggernaut like "Phantom of the Opera" nor is it a snob literary hit like "Les Miserables." Yet this pop-music musical loosely based on "La Boheme" is proving to be one of the most influential Broadway musicals in recent history.

Since last November, the first road production, nicknamed "the Angel Company," played Boston for 29 weeks, Minneapolis for 11 1/2 weeks and is now in Washington, D.C. A second touring production, "the Benny Company," opened this summer in La Jolla with an 11-week engagement, and it will play Los Angeles for 18 weeks before heading for Phoenix. A third company opens in Toronto next month.

Not bad for a show that faced early skepticism about its future outside New York because of its dicey subject matter and the narrow geography of its East Village setting. Some naysayers also predicted that "Rent" could not rely on the intense publicity that accompanied its Broadway bow, saying the show never would have been quite so heralded had Larson's death not provided such a neat metaphoric hook for the media.

"I think a lot of people were skeptical about the hype, and that was true when we opened here [in San Diego]," says Michael Greif, "Rent's" 38-year-old director, who is also artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. He scored a coup when he convinced the producers out of loyalty to give the playhouse the West Coast premiere. Subscriptions at the playhouse shot up within days of the announcement, and the run was soon sold out.

"People wanted to experience it for themselves. There was some worry on their part, I guess, that if they didn't like it, they would wonder if it was something wrong with them or with the production. But I was confident that its universal themes and its openheartedness would be as accessible to people around the country as it was to New Yorkers."

Indeed, while "Rent" still has its share of negative responses--"What a piece of garbage!" muttered one disgruntled patron as he stalked out of a La Jolla performance--the show is nonetheless demonstrating remarkable trans-generational appeal on the road, even among older audiences, who seem touched by its bittersweet message of living life to the fullest as the only triumph over death, particularly as visited on the young by AIDS.

Its success appears to have long-range potential as well: "Rent" is bringing in a whole new generation of young theatergoers, crucial for the long-term prospects of Broadway. Evidence of this can be seen not only by those waiting in line for up to 12 hours for cheap tickets released daily for the show, but also by the fans across the country burning up the Internet at multiple "Rent" Web sites, including the official one (

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