Fans pay ‘RENT’ loving respect after historic run


By Lincoln Anderson

As a sendoff to the legions of devoted fans of “RENT,” the hugely successful Broadway rock opera that closed on Sunday, Life Café hosted a joyous farewell bash last Friday evening.

There was an open bar and free hors d’oeuvres, Cap’n Crunch — a familiar prop for “RENT” aficionados — frequent spontaneous breaking into stirring song and dedication of a bench to the musical’s beloved creator, Jonathan Larson.

RENTheads gave heartfelt testimonials about how the East Village-based musical — which opened on Broadway in 1996 — had changed their lives. The bench for Larson was dedicated at the spot where he often sat in the cafe at 10th St. and Avenue B, while working on the show’s book and music and observing the neighborhood, its life and its people.

Throughout the evening, fans — wide, ecstatic smiles on their faces — belted out their favorite musical numbers.

Fifty hardcore fans were selected for the event based on two-minute videotapes in which they expressed their love for the show.

“I moved to New York to be closer to ‘RENT,’ and now it’s closing,” said Damien Leggett, 30, of Brooklyn, who had seen the musical 119 times as of last Friday night. The Alphabet City song-filled story helped him shed more than 100 pounds, he said.

He said “RENT” ’s simple but powerful message was: “That people can leave the past behind. Don’t worry about the future — just prepare for today and accept what life gives you and be happy.”

Leggett always saw the show from the first two rows, participating in the daily $20 ticket lottery — a “RENT” innovation — in which 34 tickets would be raffled off two hours before the show. If he didn’t win one of these choice seats, he wouldn’t go.

“Seeing the spit come out of the actors’ mouths, isn’t that incredible? That’s how close you are,” said Theresa Piliero, 34, of Southbury, Conn., another devotee of the seating lottery.

Piliero has an entire wall in her basement dedicated to “RENT.” On it are hung the show’s original costume drawings — which she bought on e-Bay.

“Five hundred dollars. It was well worth it,” she said.

Only a true RENThead can understand the depth of these superfans’ feelings, she explained to a guest at the party.

“Do you remember when Angel died?” Piliero asked. “I’ve never seen anything portrayed in such a beautiful way. That vision of seeing Angel rise and go to heaven. It touched my heart.”

Jenny Byrd, 26, of Indianapolis, sang of her devotion to “RENT,” changing the lyrics of the musical’s song “Take Me or Leave Me,” winning an enthusiastic round of applause and cheers from the RENThead faithful.

The movie version of “RENT” was playing on a TV above the bar, while on top of it were boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal, which is sprinkled out of a building’s windows in one scene in the musical.

Red, flashing heart pins adorned fans’ chests, a symbol of the Marfan Foundation and of Marfan syndrome, the heart ailment believed to be what killed Larson the night before the show opened Off-Broadway. He was 35.

Jonathan Larson’s father, Al Larson, and older sister, Julie Larson, joined in the emotional festivities. Julie, 51, said managing Jonathan’s estate has become their full-time job. Asked how large the estate is, she just said, “Big.”

“I think ‘RENT’ will continue,” she said. “There’s a big tour now, and schools are lining up to do ‘RENT’ now. … It’s the seventh-longest-running show ever on Broadway. Jonathan was just hoping for six weeks Off-Broadway. … Jonathan’s been huge in Asia. ‘Tick, Tick…. BOOM!’ [another Larson show], opened in three different theaters in South Korea on one night.”

Asked if the character of Mark, from Scarsdale, in the musical was based on her brother, who grew up in White Plains, Julie said yes, though adding, “There’s definitely parts of Jonathan in all the characters.” Larson actually lived on the West Side, on Greenwich St.

Ultimately, the play is simply an updated, East Village version of “La Bohème,” she said.

Kathy Kirkland, Life Café’s founder and owner, said it became clear after their menus started disappearing and business increased in June when the show’s closing was announced, that the cafe had to do something. She decided to create the RENThead Registers — bound, black books in which fans can write their memories and feelings, which will be ongoing. The cafe is also selling “RENT” T-shirts for $20, tote bags for $10 and buttons for $2 or $3. It wasn’t about being commercial, she said, noting it just seemed to be something the fans wanted. A portion of proceeds will go to the Marfan Foundation.

Now that the musical has closed on Broadway, Life Café will continue to be the mecca of a “pilgrimage” for “RENT”’s fans, she said.

“In my mind, when they were singing ‘La Vie Bohéme,’ sitting at that table, ‘the last supper’ — it was there,’ Kirkland said, nodding toward the corner with Larson’s memorial bench.

Though she doesn’t remember Larson writing “RENT” in her restaurant, she’s sure she must have seen him.

“In the ’80s, this was a place to get out of the whirlwind of the craziness that was going on in the streets,” she said. “One day, I looked at everyone sitting in here writing, and I said to myself, ‘I wonder what Pulitzer Prize winner is writing a novel’ — and I’m sure he was one of them.”