Life After Rent

8 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Compared with the crowded, colorful displays of loot in most Broadway theater lobbies, the merchandise counter for Rent looks downright spare: a modest assortment of sweatshirts, mugs, CDs and T shirts in basic-grunge black-and-white. The show, too–on my first return visit since reviewing it 12 years ago–looks a bit paler than it did back in 1996, when it opened off-Broadway to so much acclaim that it made the jump to Broadway just two months later. The aids-centric story lines in this East Village update of La Bohème seem a little dated now, and the umpteenth replacement cast doesn’t have the snap, or the voices, of originals like Anthony Rapp and Idina Menzel. Still, when the last performance of Rent plays on June 1, ending the seventh longest run in Broadway history, it will leave a void on the Great White Way, and theater watchers are already asking the question, Where will Broadway find its next Rent?

Which is to say, the next hit musical that will attract a younger, more diverse audience than the relatively homogeneous (older, upscale, largely white) folks who usually fill the orchestra seats. It’s a crowd that Broadway has been chasing for years. Hair was the first show to really tap into the sensibility and musical tastes of a young generation, and plenty of musicals since then have tried to bring rock (or at least rocklike) music to the land of Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman. None, however, were as successful as Rent, which has grossed more than $280 million on Broadway, helped by a fervent audience of kids, many of whom saw the show multiple times.

But Rent didn’t exactly start a revolution. Broadway continues to do robust business; total attendance climbed 2.7% last year, to a record high of 12.3 million. But the vast majority of hit musicals since Rent, from The Producers to Jersey Boys, still earn their money the old-fashioned way: by catering to comfortably middlebrow, middle-aged audiences.

That, however, may be starting to change. The big news last season was the unexpected success of Spring Awakening, a hard-edged, hard-rocking musical about the sexual coming-of-age of teenagers in repressed 1890s Germany. It’s the sort of show that a few years ago would have been satisfied with a critically acclaimed run at a hip downtown theater–where, in fact, Spring Awakening began life in 2006. But the show, buoyed by good reviews, transferred to Broadway the following spring and awakened to find itself, against all odds, a multiple Tony winner and a box-office hit.

Now Broadway is about to welcome two more unconventional shows from off-Broadway that are hoping to reel in the sort of people who have traditionally turned their noses up, and their iPods off, at show-tunes-style musicals. One of them, Passing Strange, is an idiosyncratic mix of rock concert and theatrical bildungsroman, presided over by a Los Angeles-based alt-rocker named Stew. The other, In the Heights, is a Latin- and hip-hop-flavored love letter to the Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. The two shows have little in common except that neither could by any stretch of the imagination be mistaken for Phantom of the Opera.

They don’t look a lot like Rent either. That show, for all its breakthroughs, had an audience dominated largely by white kids from the suburbs. Meanwhile, Broadway audiences have been growing steadily more diverse in recent years; according to Theater League figures, about 26% of all Broadway theatergoers last season were non-Caucasian, a record high. One big reason was The Color Purple, the hit musical based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, backed by the seemingly unstoppable Oprah Winfrey.

But The Color Purple is really an old-fashioned musical dressed up in new colors. Most of the shows that are expanding the musical’s horizons are more personal and experimental–the work of artists who are approaching Broadway with a refreshing lack of preconceptions. And audiences, despite all the Internet-age doomsayers, may be ready for them, judging from the excitement generated by shows like Spring Awakening. “Theater is becoming groovy and cool again,” says Kevin McCollum, a co-producer (along with Jeffrey Seller and Jill Furman) of In the Heights as well as Rent. “As technology is isolating us more and more, I think there is a thirst to gather. Actually having to show up somewhere at 8 o’clock, being part of a community, is very healing and powerful.” What’s more, the eclipse of the concept album, which has accompanied the rise of iTunes and the return to primacy of the single, may be making the Broadway stage more attractive to composers who want to tell stories, not just write songs.

“In their heart of hearts,” says Stew (real name: Mark Stewart), the creator and composer of Passing Strange, “I think every rock-‘n’-roll guy who always laughs at the American musical in truth wants to write a musical. You don’t want to be with a touring band every night. And it gives you a chance to tell a story.” A native of Los Angeles who has been recording albums and doing cabaret shows with his band, the Negro Problem, for the past 10 years, Stew, 46, had seen only one musical–How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying–when he started writing Passing Strange three years ago. The loosely autobiographical show recounts the artistic journey (in scenes acted, sung and danced by a full cast) of a young man from a middle-class L.A. neighborhood to the drugs-and-free-love wonderland of Amsterdam and a radical artistic commune in Berlin.

Dramatically, the show feels a little padded (shorter stays and another stop on this tour might have helped), but musically, it’s original and extraordinarily winning. Stew, a bald, bespectacled guitarist who leads the band and narrates, is a professorial presence onstage whose flat, prosy singing voice gives an ironic grounding to the lyrical, gently rocking melodies. He’s a model of a new kind of stage composer, one neither steeped in Broadway tradition nor reacting overtly against it. “Without casting any aspersions,” says Stew, “I don’t think most of the so-called rock onstage sounds like anything my friends and I would listen to. We wanted to take the music we do on records and in clubs and put it on the American stage–music that people want to listen to, the stuff you put on when friends come over.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, 28, the conceiver, composer, lyricist and star of In the Heights, had a bit more experience with musicals than Stew did–he got what he describes as a “lethal dose of musical theater” while acting in shows at his New York City grade school (the short Puerto Rican sixth-grader played Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie). He started writing In the Heights when he was living in the Latino house at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., incorporating the hip-hop that he had grown up listening to as well as the Latin styles of favorite artists like Rubén Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Juan Luis Guerra. “I wanted to write music that told stories as well as those songwriters tell stories,” he says, “but onstage.”

The result is a warm, upbeat slice of street life set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Miranda, the narrator, plays the proprietor of a bodega in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, introducing and interacting with a dozen characters, from the college girl who disappoints her parents by dropping out of Stanford to the aging neighborhood matriarch who wins $96,000 after buying a lottery ticket. Miranda’s songs glide effortlessly between mellow hip-hop, salsa dance numbers and Latin-flavored arias that express the frustrations, dreams and community pride in Miranda’s family-friendly world. No pimps or drug dealers on these mean streets; In the Heights is both a hip and an improbably wholesome show, whose moral–like that of Passing Strange–is “There’s no place like home.”

Indeed, In the Heights might even be regarded as the first musical of the Barack Obama era. It represents change on Broadway. It’s a show full of hope. And it has its producers–and a lot of other people who want Broadway to reach out to new audiences with contemporary, heartfelt shows like these–crying “Yes, we can.”

REPLACING RENT? Hear Richard Zoglin talk about Broadway’s rock musicals, and listen to excerpts from the shows, at

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