There won't be a dry eye in the Nederlander Theater tonight when Rent plays for the last time. Seasons of Love, the choral number that opens the second act, would probably do it for me.
Over the past 12 years, I saw quite a few productions of Jonathan Larson's musical, from the original Broadway cast (actually, the first time I saw them was on TV when they sang Seasons of Love at the 1996 Democratic National Convention) to various touring companies to the movie. The original cast album has been a long-running hit on my car CD player.
Rent was sometimes called a rock opera, and certainly Larson, who tragically died at 35 from an aortic aneurysm after the last dress rehearsal of his show, borrowed ingeniously from Puccini. The first 10 minutes are a direct lift from La Boheme, with grunge rocker Roger and a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club named Mimi coming together in the duet Light My Candle. Their AIDS-crossed romance mirrors that of the Puccini opera, except Mimi makes a miraculous recovery on her deathbed in Rent. Oh, well, Broadway always did like a happy ending.
Larson had a musical narrative style that echoed that of his idol, Stephen Sondheim. In my favorite sequence in the show, the music flows from an AIDS support group into Mimi's hard-driving showstopper, Out Tonight, followed by Roger's defensive, angry response, Another Day, and then back to the support group's question, "Will I lose my dignity?"
I never did think of Rent as rock 'n' roll, though the touring companies tended to get louder and rowdier as the years went by. Spring Awakening, still going strong on Broadway, rocks harder.
Rent's most impressive contribution may be its memorable duets for gay and lesbian relationships. First, there's I'll Cover You, the expression of devotion between computer whiz Collins (originally played by Jesse L. Martin, who went on to fame and fortune as detective Ed Green in Law & Order) and his drag queen lover in very high heels, Angel. Their relationship is the rock upon which the musical's sense of community is built.
Take Me or Leave Me is a rousing shouter between Maureen, a New Jersey prom queen turned downtown performance artist, and her girlfriend, Joanne.
It has been a while since I've seen a performance of Rent, and I expect the material seems dated by now. AZT is no longer the AIDS treatment of choice, and there's a Gap in the East Village. And when was the last time you saw anyone wearing Doc Martens?
But now that the Michael Greif-directed production on Broadway is closing, the way is cleared for new interpretations of Rent, and I look forward to seeing them. As long as there are young actors to sing their hearts out, Larson's music will always sound fresh.