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How ‘Rent’ reshaped the theater industry 25 years ago — and again today

February 12, 2021 by Suzy Evans
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Twenty five years ago, Rent pioneered the first Broadway ticket lottery. To enter, die-hard fans — dubbed Rentheads — would sleep in the street for the chance to score first-come-first-served $20 tickets to see the Jonathan Larson’s cultural phenomenon about a group of artists in the East Village struggling to pay bills while staying true to themselves and battling the AIDS epidemic.

“At the time, people were saying Rent isn’t a Broadway show, and I was saying Broadway is just real estate,” lead producer Kevin McCollum, who produced the show with Jeffrey Seller and Allan S. Gordon, remembers of the time, recalling his own days of coming into the city and waiting in line to score discounted standing room tickets. “This is an epic story. What we need to do is make sure young people can come see it. We need to have cheap tickets and we need to have them available. And let’s put them in the front row.”

That energy from the front row, made up of bohemians akin to the characters onstage, radiated through the theater each night, as the lottery winners would leap to their feet at curtain call creating a resounding trickle effect. Not only was the show pioneering a new kind of access, those new audiences created a built-in word-of-mouth marketing machine from the very people who saw themselves in the show. 

While the functionality of the Broadway ticket lottery has changed over time — an in-person drawing rather than first-come basis — lotteries became integral to the ticketing landscape, joining the ranks of student rushes and standing room only seats. Then almost two decades later, the lottery went digital when TodayTix launched the first mobile edition, most notably with the Off-Broadway production of another worldwide phenomenon: Hamilton

With the emergence of a digital lottery, access expanded even further. Entrants could try their hand from their mobile devices without having to show up in person, which can often be difficult people with office jobs or other responsibilities. The paradigm shifted again.

Now enter the Covid-19 pandemic, where in-person gathering isn’t just prohibited outside the theater, but the very communal nature of theater itself cannot happen. Another shift. So when New York Theatre Workshop, the renowned Off-Broadway theater where the musical premiered, decided to honor the 25th anniversary on March 2, a virtual celebration was the best option.

Original cast members and other celebrities and fans (names like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Neil Patrick Harris, and Billy Porter make up the starry list) will come together to celebrate. Tickets are available starting at $25, and, in true Rent fashion, NYTW partnered with TodayTix to offer a digital lottery for free tickets to the event

The RENT 25 celebration has the capacity to allow citizens around the globe to be virtually present,” says NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola, who was pivotal in the musical’s original development. “It allows us all to encounter the voices of theater artists even though we are not all gathered in a room, say, on East 4th St. The digital space has introduced NYTW’s artists to people all around the world in a way that simply producing a play could never do.”

The pandemic and this moment of important conversations about racial equity and access has brought to light more questions about exactly how theater gets made and who gets to be in the room, both behind the scenes and in the audience. In the same way that Rent had these conversations in 1996, new challenges and opportunities are emerging in 2021.

“All human structures are being questioned and challenged as we collectively face the immediate consequences of a pandemic, but the interrogation is rooted in a deeper place,” Nicola says. “One century’s adaptations to human life are decaying and a new century’s responses to human experience are emerging. A central notion or theme of the speculation on what a new world might look like is access for all, not just the elite.”

However, for both McCollum and Nicola, this emergence of digital artforms does not replace live theater or even fall into the same category, as Nicola explains.

“What is happening now in the digital space is a distinct and evolving art form—one that deserves its own identity and structures,” he says. “It is not the same thing as theater. Theater-makers are bringing their prodigious imaginations and skills to this new form, so it has a kinship and relationship to theater that is undeniable. But they are different forms.”

“As we become more digitalized the need to gather will become greater and greater,” McCollum says. “This reminded us how much we need it.”

Beyond increasing price accessibility beyond the standard Broadway ticket buyer, the Rent lottery allowed the musical to gain a diverse fan base comprising all backgrounds. And since the arts are such a driving force for cultural and social change, bringing new people into the room can inspire action and improvement beyond the theater’s walls. 

“What I’m most proud of is a lot of people saw themselves in the show and whether they stayed in the arts or went elsewhere, they knew their stories needed to be told,” McCollum says of launching the Rent lottery, later adding: “If you want a better culture, young people have to be able to see theater.”