The hottest counterculture musical since “Hair” just moved from a tiny theater in Manhattan’s East Village to a huge midtown house. But can “Rent” survive Broadway?
May 1996
By James Ryan


Al Pacino mooed. A busload of kids from Jamaica High School in Queens mooed. Even Steven Spielberg mooed. In fact, on the night I saw composer‑lyricist Jonathan Larson's genre‑expanding rock‑opera Rent, at a packed off‑Broadway theater, just about the only one not mooing was Andrew Lloyd Webber. (For those not blessed to have seen the show, at one point the audience is asked to imitate a herd of bovines.)

What was Webber's opinion of Larson's fin de millen­nium take on La Bohème? "We've seen rock'n'roll in musicals before, and we'll see it again," he says. You'd think Webber would be a little more generous. After all, Larson, sadly, has written his last musical. In a freak twist, the author, who paid his own rent with tips earned at a SoHo diner, died at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm on the night of Rent's final dress rehearsal.

As tragic as it is, Larson's death has added a new poignancy to the songs' lyrics, some of which refer to the impending death of the show's four HIV‑positive characters. The majority of the songs have a more kinkily playful tone. Typical is the romantic duet "Light My Candle": She: "They say that I have the best ass below 14th Street." He: "They used to tie you up.... I didn't recognize you without the handcuffs."

Last month, Larson's swan song moved from the New York Theatre Workshop, a 150‑seat playpen on East Fourth Street, to the vast Nederlander Theatre, a 1200‑seat Broadway house. How well will this show ‑with a largely unknown cast (the closest one lead ever came to Broadway before was as a personal trainer for one of the principals in Tommy) and a central romance predicated on a mutual dependency on AZT‑ connect with tourists used to Miss Saigon and Beauty and the Beast? "We're ready for Broadway," says director Michael Greif. "I think the couple from Peoria will like Rent. Everyone is interested in things that push the envelope."