Rent, the most uplifting/most depressing musical of the ’90s, will close this Sunday, September 7, after more than 5,100 performances on Broadway. Although it’s time for the now culturally dated show to bow out gracefully, it’s not without tribute that Rent leaves its home at the Nederlander Theatre, where it debuted on April 29, 1996.
For myriad reasons, Rent spoke for a generation, and not just because my high school friends and I would sing the score from beginning to end on all road trips. The story resonates deeply with its audience: young people living in New York, trying to maintain their artistic integrity and not sell out despite the lure of a cushier life. The characters encounter love and loss, drug abuse, self-revelation, and living with HIV. Rent is a rock opera, and the tone of the production, both musically and visually, was hip and approachable for teens and young adults in the late ’90s. At the same time, the show’s marketing incorporated a grungier look than what other Broadway shows had, making it visually attractive to its target audience. Rent is a show about coming into one’s own, and it was gratefully appreciated by millions of people who understood exactly what it was trying to say.
Rent is now something of a period piece, and when it’s revived down the road it will surely define Generation X (and sometimes Y). The show takes place in Manhattan, specifically in the slums of the East Village. With frantic gentrification, living in the East Village is hardly slumming it anymore, what with a Starbucks on every corner and $2,000-a-month studio apartments. Also, a major theme of Rent is the prevalence of AIDS in America. When it opened off-Broadway in 1994, the AIDS crisis was a terrifying epidemic. Fourteen years later it’s a wonderful thing to say that the disease is much less of a death sentence than it used to be.
Rent has found enormous success throughout the world and will continue to tour. (A 2009 tour with original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp is in the works.) The show has been translated into every major language and has been performed on six continents. Here in New York it closes as the seventh-longest-running show in Broadway history. From its original run at the New York Theatre Workshop to a Broadway run that grossed over $280 million, Rent holds a solid place in musical-theatre history. And when it’s revived in a few decades I’m going to feel really, really old.