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Arts & Entertainment
Rent 10 Gala Celebration
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
April 24, 2006
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So how do you measure ten years? You celebrate. Ten years ago this week, RENT opened on Broadway, and last night, we’re standing, again, on 41st Street, in front of the Nederlander, a block where we’ve spent perhaps more time than any other singular block in this city, and we’re watching the crowds walk the red carpet. The films crews are out, all the nightly celebrity news magazines, and the block is closed off to all vehicular traffic. The original cast is back, performing together again for the first time in ten years, and RENTheads are out in full force, and so is the celebrity machine which helped generate such immediate enthusiasm for this show which is now the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history. A man comes and stands alongside us, and asks, “What’s going on?” Ten years of RENT, we tell him. “Ten years?” he repeats. “Ten years already.”

Ten years ago this week, it was April 1996. Times Square was just becoming again the massive entertainment complex it had been back before the Depression, back before the sex palaces took over the Deuce. New York still had rough edges, even in Manhattan, and 41st Street, home of the Nederlander Theatre, where RENT was about to open was one of the less-polished blocks in town, with an SRO right next door. And now, ten years later, that SRO hotel is the little boutique hotel, Hotel 41, which has been pulled into service for this evening’s gala, serving as the Green Room for all the cast, a cast of dozens which will join the original cast, for the final number.

Years ago, when Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line became the longest-running show in Broadway history, Bennett staged a celebration which brought together hundreds of all the dancers who had graced stages around the world in productions of Chorus Line – and he put them all onstage, and up and down the aisles of the Shubert Theatre. Hundreds and hundreds of dancers in those silver lamé pantsuits and all of them singing “One Singular Sensation.” And I thought then, “This is it. It don’t get better than this.”

So we’re kind of wondering what might happen at the Nederlander as we join the block-long line of double-air-kissing ticketholders. People we haven’t seen in so long, such as Brig Berney, who was for so long the cast manager of RENT, and is now managing Festen. It’s an alumni reunion. We walk into the enclosed tent and onto the Target red carpet, Target being the primary sponsor for the evening, and therefore, we’re expecting totally stylish swag in the stylish gift bag at evening’s end. We linger outside and and watch the flashes flash and there goes Bill Clegg, minus Ira. And Raul Esparza who we last saw sing Elvis Costello’s “God Give Me Strength” at the Friends in Deed Benefit on Halloween night, and when we remind him how incredible that performance was that evening, he says, “Yeah, and I was a wreck, with Elvis Costello standing and watching right there.”

Inside the Nederlander, it’s open bar and so sipping champagne splits with straws, we do the schmooze and troll the real estate we know so well from so many nights in the theatre’s warm embrace. How many times have we seen RENT? More than seventy-five, which is a lot to many people, but not so many to many more. Our favorite usher, Angel, he of the mighty body and beautiful head, is still passing out programs, same aisle, same side. And how right is it that his name is Angel, passing out Playbills for a show where Angel is the linchpin for all the characters? And there’s Ryan Davis, whom we know from the lottery lines, and who’s now a director in his own right.

And then the house lights flicker – and the audience cheers. The energy is crazy palpable, the house sold-out. And across the stage strides Mayor Bloomberg with Senator Schumer and Allan Gordon and Jonathan Tisch and Jimmy Nederlander. The audience cheers some more. And the speechifying commences and mercifully is brief – because everyone knows why we’re here.

And then, there they are: the Original Broadway Cast. The audience is on its feet, as one. And the OBC is singing “Seasons of Love,” and already, people are crying around us. Ten years have passed, not just in the life of this show, and the life of the original cast, but also in the life of New York, and all of us as New Yorkers. The fifth-year RENT anniversary was in April of 2001, a party at BB King’s on 42nd Street, five months before 9/11, and now it’s April 2006. So much change in everyone’s life, and we’re all looking at the original cast and remembering how it was, back then, and who we were, back then, and where we lived and with whom and who were our friends and where are they now and what we were working on way back in 1996, five years before 9/11, when the brand-new RENT was reminding us of a time back in 1989, when our friends were getting sick, and dying, and there was only one pill available and ACT-UP was the radical activist counterpart to the more procedural GMHC, and sickness and struggle were all around, in the neighborhoods where we lived, seeing young men struggle to walk with canes, and rent ate up our paltry income, and Disneyland was in Orlando, and nowhere near New York.

A cascade of memories, they come washing over us as the OBC runs through the oh-so-familiar numbers. the lyrics a litany we recall better than any creeds learned from church, they formed our own personal dialect, bits and pieces of Jonathan Larson’s libretto, which we co-opted to form our own RENT vernacular. Every time one of the ensemble’s primary characters steps forward to sing his or her signature song, the audience goes wild – and particularly when Wilson Jermaine Heredia comes out in his candy-apple red Santa Baby suit. As Angel, Heredia stands there in his Evita pose, arms outstretched, drumsticks in hand, and receives the crowd’s adulation. Without a doubt, it’s Angel who lives inside the memory banks of so many of us in the audience: the person who loved us unconditionally, the firecracker partygirl, the loyal and loving friend, the one who’s gone on.

Like a day in the life with its markers of passing time, the songs come and go, one after another, their lyrics and melodies as familiar as the hours and places and friends with which we fill our lives. And though they’ve sung these songs and said these words 525,600 times, the OBC riffs on the familiar. Instead of asking “Got a dollar?” Gwen Stewart as the homeless woman asks “Got a thousand dollars?”, a reference to the price for a seat at this night’s performance. And Idina Menzel bares a black thong, and Adam Pascal gets phallic with his guitar – and whenever one of them goes up on a line, the audience throws it right back at them. And so does another night of RENT pass, from Christmas Eve last year, to Christmas Eve next, and then, there they all are again, seated and standing on the table, calling Angel in from the wings for a final “no day but today.”

Except – on this night, it ain’t yet over. Suddenly, the OBC races backstage and up the fire escape, while the current RENT cast takes the front line, and again, we in the audience are all on our feet, as “Seasons of Love” starts again, a new arrangement for this the 10th anniversary, and when after a verse, the current cast steps back a few feet, the stage is suddenly flooded with scores of performers who have played these characters we all know so well, and all of them joyfully singing “Seasons of Love,” all the moments we’ve enjoyed together, forming this family brought together by Jonathan Larson’s message of love, tolerance and compassion. So many faces once so familiar, all on the stage again, all the people we laughed and cried with over the course of ten years, now all assembled together on one stage, in one theatre, under one roof. The ultimate RENT family reunion – home again, home at last.

No one really wants to leave the Nederlander, not until the final note is played and the band packs up its instruments, and so then, we do file out, and onto plush buses which glide us across 42nd Street to the after-party at Cipriani where the cameras await us again, and there’s another enclosed walkway with the Target red carpet.

Cipriani. Could there be a more respected name in service and cuisine? World famous for their Harry’s Bar in Venice, and later Cipriani in New York, any party at a Cipriani space is well worth the price of admission, and in this locale particularly. Cipriani 42nd Street is what was once known as the Bowery Savings Bank, an Italian renaissance masterpiece designed by Louis Aires of York & Sawyer. Built in 1921 with soaring marble columns, inlaid floors, and a 65-foot ceiling, it’s no wonder this awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping building has been designated a national as well as city landmark. Think Grand Central for the sense of proportion, and then think party space.

There’s a RENT sign and a massive disco ball hanging from that 65-foot ceiling, with an equally massive disco stick – so that together, they form a RENT 10, rotating and shooting shards of light around the room which is filled with the kinds of immense floral arrangements that look as if they might have been air-lifted from the nursery and lowered down from the ceiling. A profusion of spring blossoms in pink and red. And disco lights flashing while a background soundtrack of jazzy soulful lounge music plays. The Cipriani staff, celebrated, and rightly so, for their unparalleled level of attentive service, is out in force, lined up to take our coats and wraps, and to offer us any number of hors d’oeuvres, passed butler style, as well as their fabled Bellinis, served raffishly in champagne flutes embossed with the Target target. The buffet tables are laden: risotto and ravioli, tagliolini and cannelloni, artichokes and fritto misto. A server passes by with individual chocolate mousses, warm and oozing. Another with crepes filled with ricotta and topped with artichoke. It’s all too rich and too indulgent and too delicious to pass up.

And everyone’s here. They’ve come out of the woodwork, as Tony Vincent says, all these people whose lives have been so impacted by RENT. People we haven’t seen in so long: Robert Glean who looks as delicious in dreads as he did with a shaved head, and Wilson Cruz, with that contagious smile and that endearing baby face. And Maya Days, with a photo of her baby Boston Quinn on her handbag, ever-stunning and gracious. We’re wandering the party, spellbound at the space, the details leftover from its days as a bank: the brass plates with their admonition: SAVE TIME, BANK BY MAIL. And the men’s room the size of a Manhattan apartment – they knew how to build back in 1921, before the Depression cramped the nation’s style.

There’s a deejay and he gets the kids dancing to Diana Ross who threatens to come out and there’s Markie Setlock with that most brilliant smile, and then we’re directing him to Jimmy Poulos for their hot tub reunion, where we run into Gwen Stewart who’s got those tiger eyes which hold us in their gleam. Flashes and photo ops, and smiles for the press. And then we’re over by the Target booth, where the Target dog, an English bull terrier (apparently named Ariela) is available for photographs. Everyone’s a star at RENT. And Michael McElroy, of course, tall and gorgeous, and ever the gentleman, always the diplomat. And Calvin Grant, too sexy for his shirt, too sexy by far -- and also, oh, my goodness, but it’s been far too long, and now his hair is that long, too, it’s Carlos Gonzalez, aka Sahara, writer and composer of Warm (now preparing for its debut at the Lambs Theatre) – and he looks good. And happier than we remember and we’re so happy to see him again, and that’s how it is all around. All these friends together again, they’re all trading numbers and jumping each other’s bones. What a bunch, what a crazy talented bunch – it’s a privilege to know them all.

So that’s how we measure ten good years: in all the laughter we’ve shared, in all the joy we’ve received, in all the good that has emanated from the stage of the Nederlander where RENT still plays, night after night.

And the gift bag? It’s black and sleek with a target of red patent leather, a little bit of Angel on a New York background – and filled with goodies – just as RENT is a gift to the city and to all of us whose lives have been touched by its love.