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'Rent' leaves Broadway, but it's still a big hit

EDITOR'S NOTE: A touring production of “Rent” comes to Charlotte in January. But the Broadway show closes tonight. Here is one critic's view of that long-running production.

Broadway shows are signs of their times, and revivals either confirm our original assessments or make us wonder “What was I thinking?”

In the case of “Rent,” my guess is that, like the recent hit revival of “A Chorus Line” and the Broadway-bound “Hair,” Jonathan Larson's musical – which closes tonight at the Nederlander Theatre after 12 remarkable years – will stand the test of time. I'm already looking forward to the revival.

In early February 1996, I attended a critics' preview of “Rent” at the New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan.

Larson, who'd written the book, music and lyrics, had died from an aortic aneurysm less than two weeks earlier, just shy of his 36th birthday. About 15 minutes into the show, I had the sense that everyone in the audience knew we were witnessing not just the birth of a new musical, but a work whose impact would be felt long after that night.

Larson had brashly updated “La Boheme,” setting the story of struggling artists in New York's East Village, where he lived and worked in an era of greed, indifference and hopelessness. Several of its main characters were HIV-positive. Larson's audacious Mimi, like Puccini's, was dying. Yet this contemporary heroine was so full of life (and smack) she actually howled at the moon.

Although “Seasons of Love,” the best-known song in a score full of gems, urges us to measure a life not in numbers but in less tangible things, the numbers for “Rent” are stunning: When it closes after 5,140 performances, it will be the seventh-longest-running show in Broadway history. It will have grossed more than $625 million here, on tour and in over 200 productions around the world, according to John Corker, the show's general manager. It won a Pulitzer, four Tony Awards, including best musical, and in 2005 was made into a Sony Pictures Entertainment film starring many of the original cast members. The show's profits funded the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, which supports talented musical theater newcomers.

Soon after I'd seen the show again, when it moved to the Nederlander, I sat in a room at the Algonquin Hotel with four other critics to talk about the season. Our task was to propose three candidates for that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which would then be voted upon by the Pulitzer board.

Richard Christiansen, the chairman of our jury and the longtime drama critic of the Chicago Tribune, suggested we begin by offering our thoughts about the season and asked me to start. (I was the chief critic of Variety at the time.)

I said I had been prepared to give no award that year – until “Rent” came along. “Rent” not only merited the prize, nothing else came close. Frank Rich, the New York Times chief critic-turned-columnist, agreed. So did Clive Barnes of the New York Post and Judith Greene of the San Jose Mercury News and, finally, our chairman.

I've been asked many times in the years since whether Larson's death had influenced us. My twofold response has generally been to say “No” and then revisit the show, just to see whether I still believed that myself.

I'd have had no qualms about admitting that I'd changed my mind: Times and tastes change. In the case of “Rent,” however, that's never happened. It's as vital, original and moving today as was 12 years ago, and I still mourn the loss of Larson's talent.

“‘No day/But today' are the last lines sung in ‘Rent,'” I wrote in 1996. “It's no small comfort that while Larson is gone, he's left a show that more clearly and more defiantly than any other in recent memory points the American musical toward the future.”

It's doubtful that shows like “Spring Awakening,” “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange,” to name just three, would have found a place in the Broadway bazaar without “Rent” to lead the way.

I plan to be in the audience for the final performance, as I was in the beginning, to celebrate a voice that in death has never dimmed. Such work makes fans of us all – even the most dubious critics among us.