'Rent' Takes Final Bow On Broadway

The curtain comes down on Rent for the last time Sunday night, after 12 years on Broadway. Although critics call the musical dated, it will live on in a touring production and countless high school drama classes.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

After 12 years, the rent finally comes due tonight on Broadway. The musical that initially shocked audiences and then spawned tours, a movie, and a wave of hard rocking imitators has its final curtain call at the Nederlander Theater.

NPR's Jack Zahora takes a look back.

JACK ZAHORA: It's been about 20 years since "Rent's" composer Jonathan Larson teamed up with playwright Billy Aronson to recast Puccini's opera "La Boheme" in New York City's East Village.

(Soundbite of song "La Vie Boheme")

Unidentified Man: La vie boheme.

Mr. JONATHAN LARSON (Composer): (Singing) To days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing.

Unidentified Man: La vie boheme.

Mr. LARSON: (Singing) The need to express, to communicate, to going against the grain, going insane, going mad.

ZAHORA: That's "Rent's" Jonathan Larson from a rare clip on YouTube. Larson died of an aortic aneurism two years after he debuted "Rent" as a stage reading at the small New York Theatre Workshop, and only two weeks before the musical moved downtown to Broadway.

(Soundbite of song, "Rent")

Mr. ANTHONY RAPP (Actor): (As Mark Cohen) (Singing) And we're hungry and frozen.

Mr. ADAM PASCAL (Actor): (As Roger Davis) (Singing) Some life that we've chosen. How are we gonna pay? How are we gonna pay? How are we gonna pay last year's rent?

Mr. RAPP: (As Mark Cohen) (Singing) How are we gonna pay? How are we gonna pay? How are we gonna pay last year's rent?

ZAHORA: More than 150 actors have performed "Rent" on Broadway including dozens who've played the lead Mark Cohen; a 20-something independent filmmaker who narrates his friend's struggle as starving artists. The musical has been a haven for newcomers, including Adam Kantor who was starring as the last Mark.

Mr. ADAM KANTOR (Actor): Just a few months ago I was just studying for finals and now I'm starring as the last Mark in "Rent" on Broadway. I mean, I - when I say it I can't believe it.

ZAHORA: He also can't believe the show is ending. But critics say "Rent" is now passé. That it's no longer controversial to see gays and lesbians singing on stage when in real life they're getting married in California and Massachusetts. But Renee Elise Goldsberry says "Rent" is still relevant. She plays Mimi Marquez, an exotic dancer who's addicted to heroin and living with HIV.

Ms. RENEE ELISE GOLDSBERRY (Actor): I did see the show a couple years in. That was my first experience. And then saw it maybe several years later again and realized how times change and how it can change a piece. I felt, quite honestly, that it was dated. And then I saw it again a couple years later and I felt, oh my god, we found a way to save this time and this moment and it lives exactly the way it was supposed to.

(Soundbite of song, "Another Day")

Unidentified Group: No harder road, no other way, no day but today.

ZAHORA: When New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley reviewed "Rent's" Broadway debut in 1996, he called it youthful and luminous. Today he says has been so successful. Its life spanned so long that its portrayal of the East Village is not even close to reality.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (New York Times): The kids who are glorified in "Rent" couldn't live in the East Village anymore. They couldn't afford it. In a sense, "Rent," to see it now is sort of a requiem for a time that's gone.

ZAHORA: "Rent" is the seventh longest running musical on Broadway following hits such as "Phantom of the Opera," "Cats," and "Chorus Line." "Rent" also has seen its overall ticket sales drop this year. During the musical's run it turned to celebrity singers to bring in tourists. So with "Rent's" exit, where will audiences go to see the Broadway version of rock?

(Soundbite of song, "The Dark I Know Well")

Ms. LILLI COOPER (Actress): (As Martha) (Singing) You say all you want is just to kiss goodnight, then you hold me and you whisper, child the lord won't mind.

ZAHORA: "Spring Awakening" fills the gaps says critic Ben Brantley. The musical deals with teenage sexuality, abortion and suicide, and is set in late 19th century Germany.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Kids who are, oh, 15 to 21 picked up on that they way a half generation earlier did on "Rent."

ZAHORA: So is this the end of "Rent?" Well, no. Later this year, Sony Pictures is showing a stage performance of "Rent" in movie theaters, and next year a national tour kicks off with some of the original cast members. And if you check back to YouTube, you'll hear that "Rent" is alive and well across the country in high schools.

(Soundbite of song, "Seasons of Love")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) 525,600 minutes, how do you measure…

ZAHORA: Jack Zahora, NPR News.

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