NEW YORK — They cheered, they cried and gave the show a standing ovation even before the first note was sung.
Broadway said goodbye Sunday to "Rent," 12 years and 5,124 performances after it first became a rock musical with a message for theatergoers of all ages.
"Like we did when we opened, we dedicate this performance to Jonathan Larson," said actor Adam Kantor, referring to the man who wrote the show's book, music and lyrics.
Then "Rent" was off and running toward its final curtain that had the last cast as well as members of its original company together on stage at the end of the evening to sing an electric version of "Seasons of Love," one of the show's best-known songs.
"There's mixed emotions, but it's time," said Allan S. Gordon, one of its producers, talking about the closing.
The show, book was born off-Broadway in triumph and tragedy. Larson died of an aortic aneurism after its final dress rehearsal in January 1996. He was 35.
"It was the most shocking thing," Gordon recalled. "I still can't believe Jonathan is dead. All you need is one (big hit), and he had that. I don't miss what he didn't write. I feel bad that he isn't here to enjoy what he did."
Larson's tale of free-spirited artists and street people in a gritty drug- and AIDS-plagued East Village of the early 1990s touched several generations.
Rave reviews propelled "Rent" to Broadway where the musical opened the following April at the Nederlander Theatre, a house often shunned by producers because it was on the wrong side of 42nd Street.
The show, inspired by Puccini's "La Boheme," found a ready-made audience in young people. Its fanatical supporters were nicknamed "Rentheads," and many of them saw the show after the musical instituted a same-day, front-row ticket price of $20. The plan proved so popular that it was changed to a lottery format to accommodate the demand.
Yet the show's fans were more than just young theatergoers.
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"It's 80 percent the traditional audience," Gordon explained. "'Rent' was not defined by age. It attracted a wide spectrum of people. People of all ages love it. That's why it survived."
Survived and thrived — winning Tonys, Obies and the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as grossing more than $280 million during its Broadway run. Millions more were made from national tours and foreign productions that performed on six continents. A film version, using much of the original cast, was released in 2005.
New tour begins in January
All Broadway shows have a finite life, a beginning and, no matter how successful, an end. Even "Cats" closed, and, one day, so will "The Phantom of the Opera." But what made "Rent" stand out and be embraced by so many people?
"In my mind, it's simply the message," said Gwen Stewart, a member of the original cast and the performer who came back for the final performances.
"'Rent' speaks to people's hearts," Stewart said. "There is a universal truth that I think everyone can identity with: Living today to the fullest because you don't know if tomorrow will be promised to you. Live. Love. Laugh. We have all gone through loss. Not necessarily AIDS-related, but everyone loses someone at some point."
Rodney Hicks, another original cast member, agrees.
"'Rent' is about love and learning how to love — under whatever circumstance," he said. "And learning how to accept that love. And loving unconditionally. The commonality in the show is the universal language of love that everyone can relate to. That's why the show has translated so well into other languages, into other countries."
Hicks, who first met Larson in 1995 when he was 21, had a small role in the original production and says he grew up with the show. Now he is back in the musical, in a bigger part, portraying Benjamin J. Coffin the landlord, the role originated by Taye Diggs.
"I had always wanted to play Benny," he recalled. "At the time, I looked like I was 14, 15 years old. When you are 21, you don't realize how young you actually look — or are. ... Now, at 34, I'm actually old enough to play the character."
Hicks said Sunday's closing gives the Broadway production "a feeling of completeness."
But it's not the end of "Rent," according to Gordon.
Another tour starts in January for some 30 weeks with several members of the original cast. Plus a new cinecast of "Rent," filmed in High-Definition video by Sony Pictures during the musical's last performances, will be shown in movie theaters in the United States and Canada for four days (Sept. 24-25 and Sept. 27-28). Check http://www.thehotticket.net/rent for locations.
"'Rent' is recorded for history, so it's not like it's disappearing off the map," Gordon said. "Hmmm, maybe I should bring back a revival next year."
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