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A few weeks ago, I went to see Rent. My fiancé and I entered the lobby of the National Theatre and walked smack into a board bearing a fairly long list of cast substitutions. “Darn,” I said to Christopher, “Simone isn’t performing.” The mono-monikered daughter of Nina Simone had understudied the part of Mimi on Broadway, and I’d been looking forward to seeing her. A young woman near us whipped around. Standing very close to me, she breathed, “Oh no, Julie is marvelous.”

I looked at her with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “Oh, really?”

“Oh yes,” she replied, “I love Julie’s Mimi.” She went on to explain to us that she had seen Rent seven times and that Julie P. Danao’s and Simone’s Mimi’s were both wonderful and we wouldn’t be disappointed. We thought our adviser was a little odd but forgot about her as we headed to our seats.

We had great seats—second-row aisle, stage right. As the musicians came onstage, the people in the center of the first two rows began to cheer. “Weird,” I said to Christopher; he chuckled. When the cast took the stage, however, the cheering section metamorphosed. It was flashback time, Beatles-at-Shea time. The two rows of people went wild. I had heard that there were people who stood in line for these $20 seats, but I had no idea of the extent of their mania.

I was curious about these folks, and I also sensed a few kindred spirits. After all, I was a former Star Trekker (not Trekkie) and a former Rocky Horror Picture Show junkie and a faux Deadhead. But those were fixations I could understand. Traveling around with Jerry, dressing up and shouting at a movie screen, memorizing starship blueprints, OK—but Rent? I mean, I loved the play the first time I saw it; I even loved it the second time, but I saw no reason to go back and see the same cast again and again.

It seems I was missing something. On Saturday, Oct. 18, at 10 a.m. a long line already stretched outside the National Theatre. Many people looked as if they had spent the night there. There were at least six sleeping bags spread on the ground, and one person had even put plastic down to protect the bag from the previous night’s dampness. Steve and Scott, both dedicated Rentheads, were among the first in line. “We got here around 9 last night,” Steve said. The two guys and a female friend had driven down from southern New Jersey. They laughed when they said they had spent the night under the theater’s marquee, trying to stay dry. The rain had stopped around 6 a.m., and by that time there were approximately 20 people huddled under the overhang with them.

I told Scott and Steve that I was a reporter, and before long I was surrounded by a small horde of people. “Why Rent?” I asked.

They all clamored to answer, but Steve was first with, “Why not?” He seemed used to answering this question and let loose his spiel: “Rent is the birth of the modern musical. It’s opened the door for things that were in the closet: homosexuality, drug use…”

“What about Angels in America?”

I interrupted.

“Angels…” he continued. “Well, I hate to say this, but Angels didn’t do that. A certain age group has easier access to Rent. It has a TV mentality. You have to reach kids where they are. With Rent, kids can say, ‘I relate to this.’”

Steve had seen Rent 10 times, seven in New York and three in D.C. I quickly learned to specify locations when asking how many times someone had seen Rent. If I just asked how many times a Renthead had seen the play, I’d get a reply of “six,” and then, “plus four in New York.” Melissa explained to me that “you need to see Rent at least three times: first for the overall message, second for the plot, and third to finally ‘get it.’” Of course, Melissa had seen Rent 13 times, five in New York and eight in D.C.

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After hanging out awhile, I noticed a minidrama sprouting up. Luther Creek, who played Mark Cohen, was leaving the show. Saturday evening would be his final performance. Chosen to head the Toronto production of Rent, Creek had casually dropped this bombshell on Jose, a particularly well-connected Renthead, the night before. Jose had called the most ardent Rentheads, who were there in full force for Creek’s last performance. They were also upset that Creek hadn’t told them sooner. “How could he just take off like that?” Melissa wailed. “If Jose hadn’t called, we wouldn’t have known.”

Melissa became my Rent-ticket guardian angel. She had been in line since late Friday evening. She decided to let me have one of her tickets to the Saturday matinee. “You’ve got to see Rent from the first two rows,” she insisted. She and the others were actually disdainful of the ‘poor people’ who watched the show from the other seats. They especially felt for the clueless souls third-row, center. “Sixty-seven fifty for one more row back,” they sneered. “We only paid $20.”

I explained that when I had seen Rent I had simply called Protix,

given my credit card number, and hadn’t had to wait in line all night; they looked at me blankly. That was the point—the waiting, the bonding, the fun.

So there I sat in the front row, Seat 104, two away from 106, where Mark throws the keys to his apartment down to his friend Collins each performance. The keys are coveted; the stage manager comes out at the end of the first act and retrieves them in exchange for a trinket from the show. Genevieve had successfully jockeyed for Seat 106. But that afternoon there was a glitch: Daniel J. Robbins, the actor playing Mark, threw the keys to Seat 108, where Jose was sitting, causing Genevieve much heartache. Jose has caught the keys at least three times—he has two guitar picks and a candle. The stash Mimi drops is considered the best souvenir.

Genevieve seems to take her own addiction in stride. Rentheads don’t take themselves too seriously. Genevieve jokes, “My friends have already started scoping out therapists for me when Rent leaves. They call themselves ‘enablers’ when they ask me to get tickets for them.” When I press her for a concrete answer about her plans, she looks at me with amazement. “They’re going to Chicago; I’ll see it there. I’ll probably travel to Toronto to see Luther. And then there’s London…”

Genevieve has already flown to London to audition for the London company (she’s a “singer slash actor”), and even if she’s not cast, she’ll travel to London in March 1998 to see the first international company of Rent. As she’s explaining this, someone pipes up, “Did you know that they’re putting together an Australian company?” “Does this mean we have to fly to Australia?” Steve laughs.

Rent currently has two national touring companies. The one in Washington is called the “Angel” company, after one of Rent’s characters. The other, headed by Neil Patrick Harris (of Doogie Howser fame) is called the “Benny” company, after another character. Each seems to have its own devotees. People no longer feel the need to make the trek to New York to see the Broadway cast. The Angel company opened in Boston before moving on to St. Paul and then D.C. In line, I meet Keith, who became a dedicated Renthead in St. Paul. He flew in from Minnesota Friday afternoon and caught the Friday-night show. He’ll see the Saturday matinee and evening shows before flying back on Sunday. “I made lots of friends in the Rent line,” he says. “We had a group that met every Tuesday to see the show. We’d go out to dinner before the show and keep in touch with each other.” After Rent left town, the group sort of fell apart. Keith will probably see Rent in Chicago.

Melissa says she’ll “cry when Rent leaves.” She later says, “I’ll be upset.

I know it’s an obsession, but it’s a pretty healthy obsession to have.

This has been a really special way to spend the last two months.” She

hasn’t decided whether to make the trip to Chicago. “There’s a limit,”

she says. “I mean, driving across the country is nuts.” She pauses. “I say

I won’t, but I might. I know some people who are planning to make

the trip, and…”

Chuck usually comes to see Rent with his pal Genevieve. He has seen the show 13 times, all in D.C. “I’ll probably call Genevieve and cry when Rent leaves.” He’s not too worried about that now; he has other things to occupy his time. Chuck is working feverishly on a closing-night surprise for the company. I won’t reveal it here, but it’s a doozy! He’ll be sewing until the final show.

Stacie’s plans after Rent: “Life will go on like it was before. [Rent is] just a stop, not the whole thing.”

Plus, Stacie has a friend to stay with in Canada. “I’ll probably go see it in Toronto,” she says.

So Rent is leaving town this weekend. If you don’t have tickets already, don’t bother. By the time you read this, the Rentheads will already have been camping out since Wednesday. They’ll stay there until Sunday. You don’t stand a chance. If you pass by the National Theatre, tell Genevieve, Scott, Steve, Jose, Melissa, Stacie, and Chuck I said hi. I’ll probably miss the final show, but I won’t go into withdrawal, because I know that the Angel company will be in Chicago for six months, and the Benny company will be swinging through Atlanta soon, and if I miss those dates, the Angel company will be in Philly early next year, and after all, Luther is in Toronto…CP