When "Rent," a musical by an obscure 35-year-old writer and composer, opened at the 100-seat New York Theatre Workshop nearly two years ago, few people could have predicted that it would be proclaimed a landmark and move to Broadway on a wave of positive reviews, multiple prizes and ecstatic press coverage.
Yet from its humble beginnings, Jonathan Larson's musical about an extended family of young East Village bohemians coping with the challenges of love, AIDS, addiction, ambition and the threat of death struck a deep chord, particularly among the young, who responded with a passion not seen in theater since the glory days of "Hair."
As "Rent" opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sunday, for a run that continues through Jan. 18, Rentmania is truly a cult of the '90s, crystallized in lines of fans waiting, sometimes overnight, for the chance to buy $20 tickets for seats in the first two rows of the orchestra. (In Los Angeles, no lineups are allowed before 6 a.m.) There's also the "Rent-heads," who have seen the show dozens of times and log on nightly to the numerous "Rent" Web sites.
What drives these fans? David Roman, 38, a professor of English at USC and author of the forthcoming "Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture & AIDS," says, "On one level, the response to 'Rent' is the result of smart, savvy marketing choices. But 'Rent' is also a show that young people particularly can claim as their own.
"The musical speaks to them of contemporary issues relevant to their lives, and the utopian feelings in the musical about the possibilities of love, friendship, community are very powerful.
"The irony is that most of those people haven't been within 100 miles of the East Village. It doesn't matter. They're able to universalize those characters. In fact, some have never even seen the show; they only know it from the original cast album and the Internet. That, too, is ironic because the musical itself is rather critical of cyberspace.
"Another important factor," he says, "is that the cast is so accessible. Anthony Rapp [who created the lead role of Mark in New York] and Wilson Cruz in the Los Angeles company have become generational spokespersons, using their current media profile to discuss AIDS, gay issues, the homeless, within the community at large.
"Then there's the sheer diversity of the show. How many other multiracial, queer-friendly national cultural events can you name?"
On our journey to capture Rentmania, we take you to the following scenes:
Saturday, Aug. 9, 7 a.m.: A dozen bleary-eyed teens and young adults rouse from sleeping bags, makeshift beds and chaise longues amid clutter scattered along the driveway in front of the La Jolla Playhouse box office. They are on the last leg of a 12-hour vigil that began the night before when they took their places in line to purchase $20 seats for the show. Empty soda and mineral-water bottles and the occasional McDonald's wrapper are scattered alongside cigarette butts, candles, rock and pop CDs and paperback bestsellers. Among the group are Jonathan Broder, 19, a UC San Diego undergraduate from Sacramento, and his friends, Derek, 21; Jennie, 19; Lorna, 19; and Kristen, 19.
Jonathan Broder: This is my fourth time camping out. I brought three people last time who'd never heard of the show. They flipped out. And they hate musicals.
Jennie: We got here last night at about 10, and the performance was still going on. You can hear the whole thing. It's like teasing you. Camping out is more fun, more gratifying. You wake up and you're all scuzzy. And then the box office opens and it's like, "Wow! I got a ticket!" And you're in the very front row. This close.
Jonathan: I come from a very conservative Jewish family. I forced them to listen to the CD, and my father said, "This is ridiculous. I don't want you listening to this." They're normal parents, on the lookout for anything that might corrupt their kids. What they can't see is the positive and innocent heart of the show.
Derek: The more traditional musical's so slow and unimaginative, has such quaint and cute stories. They don't have an impact on people. This is just not your typical musical. It's much better.
Kristen: People love "Rent" because they can relate to the characters. Everybody knows somebody like them. They come together, they break off, they're either ecstatic or flipped out. That anyone can relate to, even if you've never been to the East Village or lived in poverty or had a friend with AIDS.
Jonathan: A friend died of AIDS two weeks ago; he was 24. He came to see "Rent" with me the first time. He walked out of the theater bawling. "Rent" is about a whole alternative lifestyle. When was the last time you could see something like that on stage?
Lorna: That's why everybody brings their friends to see it. Once people hear the music, they really get into the message of "Rent," about this desire to be a family, a community.
Kristen: Making every day count.
Jennie: It doesn't matter who you love, as long as you love.