Fans Are Outta 'Rent' Control

By MICHAEL RIEDEL
Daily News Staff Writer

For Michael McCarthy, a 31-year-old from Denville, N.J., "Rent" is more than just an earnest, energetic, successful Broadway musical. It is an obsession.

McCarthy, a health-care worker and self-described " 'Rent'-head," has seen the hit show 16 times and counting. His close friend, Nick Montesano, a 47-year-old Ocean Grove, N.J., kindergarten teacher, is on his 12th performance. Both are surpassed, however, by Joel Torrance.As of last weekend, the 31-year-old law Manhattan student had seen "Rent" 57 times.

Of course, every hit Broadway show has its devoted followers, but the producers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rent" have gone out of their way to encourage megafans. Two hours before every performance, special $20 tickets go on sale at The Nederlander Theater. To get those seats, located in the first two rows of the orchestra, "Rent"-heads often have to camp out overnight, which has created a tight-knit community along W. 41st St.

On any given night, 15 to 20 people can be found huddled under sleeping bags and plastic wrap on the sidewalk in front of the theater. They share food, play cards, gossip about cast members and sing songs from the show.

Watching over them is Nederlander security guard Bobby Redgrave (no relation to the famous theater family).

Redgrave, who keeps drug dealers and crackheads at bay, says the "Rent"-heads are usually well behaved. "I tell them if they don't do drugs and don't drink alcoholic beverages, we won't have any problems," he says.

He can't stop them from having sex, though, and once had to turn a blind eye to a teenage couple inside a Coleman sleeping bag.

What is it about this rock update of Puccini's "La Boheme" that turns some people into "Rent"-heads?

For McCarthy, it's the show's uplifting messages of survival and community. "When I saw 'Rent' for the first time, I was going through a difficult period in my life," he says. "I'd just broken up with someone and I'd lost four friends to AIDS. 'Rent' gave me hope. The first time I heard the song 'Will I Lose My Dignity?' " sung in the show by an HIV-positive support group "I just lost it."

The first time he saw "Rent," Montesano lost it, too. Like McCarthy, he'd just broken up with someone and "was pretty depressed. When I heard 'Seasons of Love' [which opens the second act], I started crying. I cried right through till the end of the show."

" 'Rent,' " he adds, "grounds me." McCarthy agrees: "I find the show therapeutic. I've even given up real therapy, which was costing me $150 an hour, because 'Rent' is more effective and a lot cheaper."

"Rent"-heads cheer every number sometimes even before it begins, which seems to perplex the people behind them, some of whom paid scalpers $500 for their seats. They laugh at jokes they've heard a dozen times. They notice the slightest variations in performances, nudging each other when, say, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who plays a transvestite, tries out a new shade of lipstick.

Most of the cast members seem grateful for the energy they get from the first two rows. Some, like Gwen Stewart and Jesse L. Martin, occasionally wink at fans they recognize. But others find the enthusiasm disorienting.

"It throws them off," says a production source, who asked not to be identified. "They appreciate it, but I think they could do without it."

They'd better get used to it, though, because the ranks of the "Rent"-heads are swelling. McCarthy says the $20 ticket line keeps getting longer, even in the dead of winter. Come summer, he predicts sleeping bags around the block.

"I can't think of another show that has meant so much to so many people," he says.

Original Story Date: 03/06/97
Original Story Section: Theater