At 5:30 a.m Aug. 5, Center City is eerily hushed. South Broad Street is nearly deserted, with only a handful of cars and pedestrians providing a hint of the morning rush that’s just a few hours away.
In the pre-dawn quiet, Lynde Hopper, 17, spreads a sleeping bag on the pavement outside the Merriam Theater at 250 S. Broad St. She and her friends, Vicki and Lizzie Allen, are the first in line to buy $20 tickets for a seat in one of the first two rows at that evening’s performance of the musical "Rent." The discounted seats go on sale at 6 p.m., two hours before show time. Hopper and the Allen sisters have 12-1/2 hours to wait.
Long ticket lines — and people camping out in them — aren’t uncommon for rare or once-in-a-lifetime events, like a reunion concert by a famous band, championship sporting events or even a chance to win a record-breaking lottery jackpot.
But many of those who line up for "Rent’s" discounted seats are what the show’s producers call "Rentheads" — groups of young people, both gay and straight, who follow the production in much the same way "Deadheads" traveled and camped to attend concerts by the Grateful Dead.
Hopper already has seen "Rent" 62 times. She traveled from her home in suburban Chicago to Philadelphia specifically to see the show again. Vicki Allen had seen the show 19 times, while her sister was up to viewing No. 23.
Jessica Reynolds, a 16-year-old from Folsom, N.J., also lined up early Aug. 5. Although she already had seen the musical three times, she was eager to rush — the term "Rentheads" use to describe the process of lining up early for $20 seats — for her fourth ticket.
Reynolds first became aware of "Rent" through an ABC-TV "Primetime Live" segment on Jonathan Larson, who wrote the show and died the night before the production opened in 1996. Inspired by the news program’s story, Reynolds bought a cast recording and, eventually, a ticket to the show in New York City.
She was hooked.
"The whole show — the music, the meaning, everything — was so true to me and touched me deeper than I ever imagined," she said.
Most of "Rent’s" repeat viewers say the musical has special meaning to them. Many welcome the play’s upbeat message during times of personal crisis. Others develop a connection with the play and with the other "Rentheads" that is missing between them and their families and peers.
For Sherri Weyent, 30, of Tyrone, "Rent" came along during a dark period in her life. Her brother had recently been diagnosed with AIDS and was beginning to suffer from opportunistic infections. Despite her brother’s failing health, she, her brother and mother decided to travel to New York City for an annual four-day indulgence in Broadway shows. Weyent bought three tickets to "Rent," which at the time was still relatively unknown.
She has since seen the show 12 more times, twice rushing for tickets in Philadelphia.
"I have never seen anything that has spoken to me as ‘Rent’ does," she said. "The story line has AIDS, but unlike a lot of other things using HIV and AIDS as a story line, ‘Rent’ surrounds it all with a very positive message. Sure, there are some intensely sad moments, but in the end you leave the theater with such a great feeling. ‘Rent’ sends a message of optimism and is really about survival."
In keeping with the wishes of Larson and the cast of the New York production before the show moved from a small, off-Broadway theater into its current Theater District digs, the seats in the first two rows for each performance, including those by touring companies, are put up for sale two hours before each show.
The policy was implemented to make good seats available to those who normally couldn’t afford theater tickets, particularly groups of younger people on whom the musical is based, said Brig Berney, company manager for the New York City show.
"It was a great thing, and brought a lot of younger people down to the front," he explained. "It provided a lot of energy and a very high excitement level to the show. The show already has a lot of energy, but its story is a bit dark in some ways. The connection these fans made with [‘Rent’s’] theme of looking for love and happiness in a modern metropolis was an added boost for the performers."
Rachel Stankiewicz, 28, who works at Philadelphia FIGHT, was the first in line July 24. Although she arrived about 4 p.m., she surprisingly found no line outside the theater. The rushing practice had yet to catch on in Philadelphia, and the warm and sunny weekend likely drew potential rushers to the Jersey Shore, theater employees said.
Stankiewicz is something of an anomaly for the "Rent" rush line: She had not seen the play before lining up for a discounted ticket.
"I heard it was great and just wanted to see the show," she said. "I figured I’d wait a while for a $20 ticket."
After the performance, Stan-kiewicz said she can understand the appeal of rushing for a seat at the front of the theater.
"Seeing it in the first two rows was phenomenal," she said. "It was exciting because everyone was so close to you and their energy was just unbelievable. While I was waiting in line, there was a guy there who said he had seen it eight times from the first two rows, and he said there’s no other way he’d ever see it except from there. It just made it so much more exciting."
Much of "Rent" is gay-themed. The characters Maureen and Joanne are an on-again, off-again lesbian couple. Angel, a drag queen, is the lover of Tom Collins. HIV and AIDS are weaved through the show, with many of the characters, both gay and straight, visibly struggling with the disease.
But the show’s gay elements are neither particularly appealing nor a turn-off for most "Rentheads"; they are simply part of modern life mirrored in the musical. In fact, many of the show’s devoted non-gay fans feel the closest connections with "Rent’s" gay characters.
Darcy Lindner, a 21-year-old from Cleveland who’s seen "Rent" 21 times — once so far in Philadelphia — said her favorite character is Angel. His homosexuality is irrelevant, she said; it is the character’s sweetness, acceptance and overall goodness that appeals to her.
"Some of the audience members are, to say the least, not so accepting of that character because he’s a drag queen," she said. "But if more people were like Angel, things would improve dramatically."
Waiting July 29 for $20 tickets were University of the Arts students Emily Carr, who had seen "Rent" once each in New York City and Philadelphia, and Nurit Roded, who had seen the show five times. Both quickly answer "Maureen" when asked which character speaks to them.
The fact that the character is a lesbian doesn’t matter to these straight young women; Maureen’s vivaciousness and love of the stage and performance art attracts them to the character.
Jenny Seo, who was in line with Carr and Roded, picks Angel as her favorite character. Again, the character’s sexual orientation was neither a draw nor a drawback.
For fans of the show, "Rent’s" homosexual content and characters offer a true-to-life portrayal of the lives of gay men and lesbians. This point of view is often missing from theatrical productions, said Lindner.
"I think that it’s an accurate depiction," she said of the inclusion of gay characters and gay-related issues in "Rent." "It’s not an overblown stereotype. You could probably replace the gay couples in ‘Rent’ with straight couples, and it really wouldn’t change the story being told. I think that’s what is so appealing about it."
"When I’m watching the relationships on stage, I’m not seeing queers or lesbians," she said. "I don’t favor Roger and Mimi because they’re a straight couple. It’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s all good.’"
Like many "Rentheads," Carr has seen different companies perform the musical and has very specific opinions about the casts she’s seen.
"Mimi in this cast [Philadelphia] is amazing, but I really think the New York cast is better," she said. Carr also attributes the "Renthead" phenomenon to the audience’s ability to relate to some or all of the characters.
"There’s a bond you feel with everyone," she said. "With something like ‘Les Miz,’ it’s great, but there’s so much of a story that it’s just kind of there for you to watch. With ‘Rent,’ it’s much more free-form and you feel closer to [the performers]."
That bond, at least in New York City, proved to be a bit too tight. "Rentheads" had connected so deeply with the show and its cast that they became over-enthusiastic during performances, often even shouting to the cast members on stage, Berney said.
"In all honesty, they were taking focus away from the show and were actually becoming part of it," he said. "To any other person in the audience, it became confusing and they thought they were missing out on some inside jokes. Sometimes it became too much, they were too energetic."
Some of the "Rentheads" in New York City became cliquish, too, Berney said. While the show’s staff was thrilled that a shared affection for the show helped "Rentheads" develop relationships with each other, it reached a point where the group became exclusionary.
Occasionally, the repeat viewers in line would turn away people who weren’t regulars, telling the new arrivals that there was already a full list of names on the waiting list, Berney said.
The "Rentheads" phenomenon in New York City also began to undermine the original goal of the $20 ticket program, Berney said. By grabbing up all the cheap seats each night, the "Rentheads" were effectively shutting out other potential theatergoers who could attend the show only by obtaining discounted seats. One particularly rabid fan has seen the show more than 200 times, Berney noted.
"The show hasn’t even reached 1,000 performances," he said. "He’s been there an average of once out of every five shows. Even at $20 a ticket, that’s more than $4,000. That’s a lot of money."
To combat the problem, the New York production initiated a lottery system to dole out discounted tickets. Those in line two hours before the show can enter their name for the chance to buy up to two $20 tickets. Names are then drawn randomly.
"This helped make more seats available to more people who wanted them and allowed us to get the $20 seats to a much more diversified group," Berney said.
The "Renthead" phenomenon hasn’t reached the same fervor in the cities where the touring companies are performing, and the original discounted-seats process remains in effect; so do the long lines.
That’s good news for Carr, Roded and Seo, who enthusiastically said they plan to see the show "at least a few more times" in Philadelphia before it ends its run Sept. 27.
It’s also a welcome relief for Stacey Hodges, who has seen "Rent" 85 times, in Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia and Toronto. The 26-year-old from a Detroit suburb who has rushed for tickets three times in Philly, plans to see the show at least 100 times, and probably far more than that.
"I keep going back because every time I go, I see something different or notice something I hadn’t before," she said. "Also, I’ve become close with a few of the cast members, and it’s fun just to go to a new city and see them perform. Lots of people spend all their extra money going to bars or movies or dancing or restaurants or whatever. I don’t. I use mine to travel and take ‘mini-type’ vacations and see the show. Going to see musical theater is what I do for fun."