Cost of raising ‘Rent’: Village tuner goes uptown

THE CURTAIN CAME DOWN Sunday on the Miracle on Fourth Street, and life on the grungy Off Off Broadway workshop scene may never be the same. For two months, the rock opera called “Rent” has been aglow in a dark cavity of the East Village, turning a gloomy stretch of East Fourth Street into a limo-lined battleground of uptown-downtown pop cultures. Not surprisingly, uptown won. At the end of April, “Rent” will be transmogrified into a Broadway musical. Appropriately, Bloomingdale’s will even open a “Rent” boutique to help make uptown people feel comfortable in recycled denim and vinyl. The big question, of course, is will “Rent” survive? Showbiz old-timers point out that a phenomenon like “Rent” is uniquely a product of a time and place. Revisit the movie version of a great show like “Hair,” and you’re left wondering why audiences nightly were tearing off their clothes and swearing allegiance to peace and love. If “Hair” was a celebration, “Rent” is a sort of glorious wake. When its 35-year-old creator, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm shortly after viewing the final run-through, the show seemed fated to become an instant legend. Having rattled around the East Village for years, waiting tables at the Moondance Diner in SoHo and composing songs at night, Larson was obsessed by the notion of creating an Alphabet City version of “La Boheme.” The ironies of this obsession are abundant. While his gay support group in the East Village was ravaged by AIDS, Larson was a straight kid from Westchester who seemed haunted by intimations of mortality. For years, his friends would return home to their hole-in-the-wall apartments to hear Larson’s songs on their answering machines, as though he feared they’d otherwise be lost to posterity. And what songs they were — gospel , rhythm and blues, grunge ballads and S&M rock. The bidding war to record this musical smorgasbord already is peaking, with a multimillion-dollar winner expected to be announced within days. The music Larson feared would vanish will soon be blasting across malls nationwide.

MOVIE RIGHTS ARE MORE IFFY. As one Hollywood producer puts it, “How do you reinvent this amazing event as a movie without destroying it, as happened with ‘Hair’? It’s not just a show, it’s a mood — a terribly sad mood at that.” Indeed, when the two leads in “Rent” sing agonizingly about their twilight zone identities –“living in America at the end of the millennium”– you sense somehow that a moment in place and time has been magically captured. Astonishingly, the audience is taken hostage by their dark lament. Will history repeat itself when the show moves from a 150-seat venue to the 1,200-seat Nederlander? So far, the signals are all felicitous. No one seems intent on diddling with the show. The cast will remain intact.

ACCORDING TO DAILY VARIETY‘s Broadway guru, Jeremy Gerard, who called the show perfectly when it first opened, the advance could climb to $5 million by mid-April. As Gerard predicted, “It will surely have a life beyond its scheduled East Village run, for despite its rugged downtown sensibility, ‘Rent’ has Broadway and a major film written all over it.” And indeed that was what Larson himself had desperately wanted. Just hours before the final run-through, Larson sat for an interview with a reporter from the New York Times. The noise and confusion at the theater was so great they had to take refuge in the dingy box office. Describing his seven-year odyssey to create the show, Larson said he was driven by his need “to celebrate in some way” the lives of his friends who had died young. A few hours after the interview, Larson, too, was dead. The first preview was canceled. Instead, friends, family, cast and crew gathered at the theater, and his songs were sung. “This was his funeral and Jonathan had written his own score for it,” a friend said. “You wonder whether he sensed it would come to this.”

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