Matt Caplan, Tim Howar, and Antonique Smith(Photo © Scott Wynn)
Matt Caplan, Tim Howar, and Antonique Smith
(Photo © Scott Wynn)
For those who believe in an afterlife, it's comforting to think that Jonathan Larson has some consciousness of the extraordinary popularity of Rent. In a true tragedy for the American musical theater, Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996. That was to have been the date of his rock musical's first preview Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop; instead, the devastated cast and company gathered that evening to give a memorial performance for family and friends.

Though Larson was aware of the excited buzz surrounding his East Village update of the immortal opera La Bohème, he didn't live to read the largely ecstatic reviews of the show or to see it transfer almost immediately to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, where it is still running 10 years later. Nor did he see Rent gain countless new fans through productions around the world, not to mention the 2005 film version, directed by Chris Columbus and featuring most of the original stage leads.

Those performers will star in an invitation-only, 10th anniversary concert version of the show at the Nederlander on Monday, April 24; but, night after night at the same theater, Rent is still going strong with its current cast. TheaterMania recently spoke about the phenomenon with Matt Caplan (Mark Cohen), who has been with the show since 1999, first on tour and later on Broadway; Antonique Smith, who signed on as a swing in 2002 and recently returned to play Mimi full-time; and Tim Howar (Roger), a newcomer to Rent.

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MATT CAPLAN: I find that, by and large, the response to the show here in New York is as strong as ever. It's a powerful piece, and it's still being received at such. Rent has crossed a threshold; it's been around long enough now that if it were to show any signs of going out of fashion, it would have done so already. Even though the movie wasn't received that well critically, it got the show's name out there.

TIM HOWAR: I saw the show in November and everyone was playing the material for all its worth. The songs still sound great -- and now they're on the radio. I was just in a coffee shop and I heard the soundtrack remix of "Seasons of Love."

ANTONIQUE SMITH: It's always fun to do the show, and it's really wild when celebrities come to see it. Laurence Fishburne was here recently. That was one of my worst performances, because I just couldn't focus. It would have been better if I didn't know he was there.

TIM: I don't think you should necessarily have called him "Morpheus" when you met him.

ANTONIQUE: I did not!

MATT: There really is a community of Rent. The company still has "peasant feasts," a tradition that Jonathan started years ago; he would get together with his friends once a year, and it was sort of his answer to your typical Thanksgiving dinner. Now, they usually have them at the Life Café.

TIM: Jonathan's world was very full, and so many of the people he knew are there at the peasant feasts saying, "This was our friend; this is who he was." It's unfortunate that Jonathan wasn't here for the long term. But his work is, and people love it.

ANTONIQUE: The Rentheads are interesting -- very passionate people. I think I'm rare in the cast in that I actually spend a lot of time with the fans. I feel like they're really helping to keep the show open. Some of them are invasive, but most of them are really nice.

MATT: There was a guy named Joel who saw the show over a thousand times. I always thought he was an exemplary Renthead because he was never invasive; he would come, enjoy the performance, smile a lot, and then leave right afterwards. He was there because the show was so powerful, not because he wanted to try to become part of the cast's lives. You know, I guess you could say that I used to be a Renthead: I slept out for tickets overnight on more than one occasion. I think the rush ticket line was a major reason why Rent has such a passionate following. Now they have the lottery, but there's nothing quite like staying on line for eight hours in the freezing cold, running to get coffee for people, getting to know each other, then going into the theater and being blown away by this crazy rock musical.

TIM: The Rentheads knew I was coming into the show before I knew it. Seriously! Before I signed my contract, they were telling me, "Congratulations on going into Rent." I was, like, "How do you know that?"

ANTONIQUE: I think they must have a mole.

MATT: Maybe it's somebody at this table…

TIM: [To Matt] Maybe it's you. Who waited on line eight hours for tickets?

ANTONIQUE: I didn't wait eight hours, but I was really young the first time I saw the show. I was in the nosebleed section -- so far away from the stage that, when I saw it again in 2002, it didn't look the same.

MATT: Some of the fans do push it. I had somebody come up to me once and say, "I just want you to know that I completely disagree with what they're saying about you on this website." I was, like, "Thanks!" Apparently, some people had written that I was too attractive and too talented for the role.

ANTONIQUE: So, does that mean the person who disagreed felt you weren't too attractive and too talented?

MATT: Umm -- yeah, I guess! Anyway, the feeling of community at Rent is very strong. Every year, on the anniversary of the show's opening, a lot of people -- Jonathan's friends, producers, past and present cast members -- gather on stage and we sing "Seasons of Love." Whenever there's any sort of milestone, like Jonathan's birthday or the anniversary of his death, there's always an acknowledgement of the moment.

Rocking on: Caplan, Smith, and Howarphotographed onstage at the Nederlander Theatre(Photo © Scott Wynn)
Rocking on: Caplan, Smith, and Howar
photographed onstage at the Nederlander Theatre
(Photo © Scott Wynn)
TIM: We've all lost people who were extremely close to us, people who were part of the community. I think it serves to remind us what a gift it is to be doing what we're doing. I get to sing and dance on Broadway; that's a dream come true, but it can be taken away from you in an instant. Being in Rent is not just a job. To be included in the 10th anniversary celebration is very special for all of us. The show is dated in some respects, but so is Casablanca. I don't see how anyone could argue that Rent is no longer relevant. AIDS is more of an epidemic now that it ever was, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Seeing this show isn't a cure all, but it does give a sense of hope.

ANTONIQUE: And how can the show be dated when it's really about love? That's timeless. A lot of new people are coming to see Rent, I think because of the movie.

MATT: People are still clamoring to talk to us at the end of the show, just to let us know how it affected them. If we do our jobs in putting Jonathan's work out there, they're on their feet at the end of the performance.

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[For more information on the Rent 10 anniversary benefit concert to be held on April 24, click here.]