Putting On A Musical For A Song

How Rent is setting the stage for more low-cost productions

Plenty of Broadway shows open with a bang. But few have the drama of Rent. Just days before its February debut at a cash-strapped downtown theater, its creator, 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurism. The rock musical, which transplants Puccini's La Boheme to New York's present-day East Village, drew raves, selling out its 150-seat house almost immediately. On Apr. 18, it won a Pulitzer Prize. On Apr. 29, it will open on Broadway.

Rent, though, is more than a good rags-to-riches story. With less than half the cast and crew of the typical lavish Broadway musical, it may be an object lesson in how to make a Broadway production profitable. Indeed, Rent's cost structure is so comfortable it could run for several years with half-filled houses and still turn a profit. Much of the rest of Broadway, meanwhile, is staggering under sky-high costs. Angels in America, for instance, never made it into the black, despite critical acclaim and frequent sold-out houses.

GAMBLE. No one--except maybe Larson--predicted that Rent would prove exceptional. Indeed, the tiny New York Theater Workshop, where Rent premiered, was struggling to stay afloat in the face of grant reductions from the National Endowment for the Arts and declining donations from local supporters. "I was sitting at my desk, trying to juggle the books to borrow against future grants," says Nancy Kassak Diekmann, NYTW's managing director. Staging Rent, whose $120,000 initial investment and $20,000 weekly operating expenses were higher than anything NYTW had put on before, was a huge gamble.

The gamble paid off when the curtain went up on Feb. 13. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time all raved about Rent. Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and Alan Gordon, three rookie producers who had collaborated with NYTW and put up $60,000 to help stage the show, rushed to exercise the option they had received in return for their support: the right to move Rent to a bigger stage.

Raising money for Broadway was no problem. "People wanted to invest so badly, we could have raised $35 million," says Gordon. But the producers wanted a Broadway version of Rent with a reasonable cost structure. They budgeted the new production at $3.5 million. Next, they negotiated a bargain rent for the dilapidated 1,150-seat Nederlander Theater. At under $15,000, the weekly rent at the Nederlander is well below the $20,000 the 1,600-seat Palace Theater collects to house Beauty and the Beast. And by using a smaller theater and a smaller set, the producers won the right to keep union musicians and stagehands to a minimum. Rent uses 12 stagehands, compared with 32 for Beauty. The producers also played hardball in negotiating artists' salaries and royalty payments. The upshot: Rent's weekly costs of $250,000 are dwarfed by the $400,000 tab of Beauty and the Beast.

Low costs, of course, don't guarantee success. Indeed, Rent eventually may confront the same problems that have plagued other musicals. Take Tommy, the stage version of The Who's classic album. Despite solid reviews, Tommy, which cost $375,000 a week to stage, turned only a small profit during its two-year run.

TRENDSETTERS. The challenge for Tommy was the same one now facing Rent: audience demographics. "Rent will do great business for 12 to 18 months, guaranteed," says Michael David, one of Tommy's producers. "But as the shine wears off, as it inevitably will, can they effectively replace the anchor Broadway audience with the younger unwashed masses?" Rent needs to reach beyond typical theatergoers and attract what its publicists call "young, affluent trendsetters aged 28 to 50"--people who don't ordinarily attend Broadway shows. To do so, Rent's producers will advertise in novel venues for Broadway shows, including New York jazz and rock radio stations.

Will that be enough to sell the show? Maybe, maybe not. But Rent is far better positioned than the average Broadway production to weather any slowdown in attendance. As of Apr. 23, advance sales totaled $3 million, and Rent's producers think they can recoup their costs and start turning a profit within six months--much faster than the year or more it took Beauty and the Beast's producers to cover their investment. The preliminary reviews: This low-rent operation may have a long lease on life.

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