Even when "Rent" opened in 1996, the East Village was gentrifying. Well-heeled newcomers were moving in and rising rents were displacing the bohemians who inspired the show.
On June 1, after a dozen years, Broadway's seventh-longest running show is to become history, like the once-gritty neighborhood that's nearly gone as well.
"Rent" was an instant sensation when it opened, dubbed an "exhilarating, landmark rock opera" by The New York Times, and when it moved to Broadway, The Associated Press said the show made the transfer with "all its raw energy, raucous musicality and radiant optimism intact."
A contemporary take on Puccini's 1897 opera "La Boheme," it tells the story of a group of friends, among them gays, lesbians and drag queens who live in the East Village around 1990, struggling to make art and find love amid poverty, HIV and drug addiction.
Much of that world has given way to luxury condos, boutiques and galleries on the avenues and side streets south of East 14th Street and north of Houston Street. A one-bedroom rents for as much as $4,000 in the area where "Rent" roommates Mark and Roger lived for free, thanks to an old friend who owned their building but, as the musical opens, is demanding rent they can't afford to pay.
In the nearly two decades since the fictional drama took place, restaurant prices have skyrocketed, except in throwbacks like the graffiti-plastered Mars Bar and the Life Cafe, where some of the defiant, joyful revelry of the production takes place.
Today's sophisticated young hipsters are more likely to flock to the sleek, trendy noodle bar Momofuku, known for its bowls of Japanese ramen topped with Carolina whole-hog barbecue.
According to longtime "Rent" director Michael Greif, the show's message has transcended the changing demographics of the neighborhood.
"It's about how people support and boost other people, how friends can become family and how you measure a life by how much loving you have done," he says.
The musical was created in the early 1990s in a white brick row house on East Fourth Street that houses the New York Theatre Workshop, still a not-for-profit incubator for new talent. Jonathan Larson, the show's creator, worked on "Rent" in a loft rehearsal room, a space with a quaint fireplace, an upright piano, a skylight and windows that look out on a courtyard ringed by old brownstones off the once drug-infested Bowery.
"The 'Rent' songs capture something about those times, about that experience, that is timeless," James Nicola, the workshop's artistic director, says.
"Rent" dared announce that AIDS was part of America, along with drug addiction and young people fleeing middle-class suburbia to live among artsy squatters and the homeless. The show, whose title also means "torn apart," became an emblem of Generation X the way "Hair" was a touchstone for baby boomers.
Sadly, Larson died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm just hours after the dress rehearsal for the show's opening. Months later, "Rent" moved to Broadway, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize and four Tonys, and drawing sellout crowds for more than a decade.
With a total gross of more than $280 million on Broadway and about $340 million on the road, Broadway ticket sales had started to slip in the past half year. The producers decided the box-office take didn't meet costs and they couldn't keep running the show.
On a recent Saturday evening, however, the Nederlander Theatre was packed with spectators who rose to their feet to applaud a musical that continues to attract young "Rentheads," some of whom have seen the show dozens of times.
With the musical still touring the country, most of the original cast, including Rapp, can still be seen in a 2005 movie based on the Broadway production.
Rapp, who says he considers the East Village his emotional home even though he has moved to the nearby neighborhood of NoHo, speculated about what HIV-positive Roger and Mark might be like now, with the advent of more effective AIDS drugs.
"Roger would have lived because of the new AIDS drugs and Mark might have found a way to be part of the new media," he said.
Rapp, 36, has moved on to other work, but says that he and other cast members haven't left "Rent" completely behind.
"There's an idealism at the core of 'Rent' and in us," he says. "There are so many things in our everyday life now that tell us, 'No, no, no.' 'Rent' says, 'Yes, yes, yes!"
By VERENA DOBNIK