The Children of RENT

By Richard Zoglin

Time magazine, December 7, 1998

From slacker druggies to flying performance artists, a stodgy old medium tries to think young.

Arielle Tepper fondly remembers her first Broadway show, Annie. "I couldn't believe how excited I was," she says. "I'm looking around the theater and thinking, 'Everybody's sitting in this big room having a really good time, and that little girl onstage is making that possible.'" The problem is that kids who get excited about shows like Annie soon reach the awkward age: too old for Simba and too young for earnest dramas about bad marriages, or revivals of Broadway musicals that your parents used to go to. Still do.

For years, theater has had trouble attracting the kind of hip young audiences that flock to the movie multiplexes or gather in front of the TV set for Ally McBeal. But that may be changing. According to a recent study by Audience Research & Analysis, 41.8% of Broadway theatergoers last year were under 35. Though many of those were young kids being taken to musicals by their parents, that's up from 34.7% in 1991.

Tepper, 26, is one of a growing number of producers who are seeking out that crowd. She has co-produced three shows that have thrived largely on the strength of the younger audience: Freak, John Leguizamo's one-man show that had a successful Broadway run last season; I'm Still Here...Damn It!, Sandra Bernhard's monologue-plus-music, which has just opened on Broadway after a hit engagement downtown; and De La Guarda, a performance troupe from Argentina that has become a hot off-Broadway attraction. Joining them are a batch of new plays making a determined effort to attract the long-neglected Gen Xers.

When Rent opened on Broadway in 1996, it seemed to augur a new era of hip, youthful Broadway shows. Wrong. The Broadway musical after Rent has looked pretty much like the Broadway musical before it. The only recent show that seems aimed squarely at the teen market is the hopelessly square Footloose, a clunky stage version of the 1984 movie.

Away from Broadway, however, several smaller shows are bringing in throngs of young people. Often they do it by breaking genre boundaries, mixing in elements of rock concerts or performance art. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a hot ticket for months, is the life story of a transsexual rock star, told in the form of an autobiographical nightclub act. De La Guarda's circus-like theater piece, Villa Villa, features performers who swoop and soar on cables above the audience (which stands during the entire 60-min. spectacle). "These shows are reinventing theatrical language," says David Binder, a De La Guarda co-producer, "for an audience that thought the theater had nothing to say to them."

More conventional plays are trying to catch the Gen X spirit too. Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth centers on a pair of drug-addled New York City teens who wrangle over what to do with the $ 15,000 one of them has stolen from his father. The dialogue and acting--a kind of slacker version of Abbott and Costello--are unrelentingly naturalistic, even as the play betrays a sentimental streak. A grittier take on youth culture is Trainspotting, Harry Gibson's riveting stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh's cult novel about disaffected Scottish youth, which was also the basis for the 1996 film. Staged with stark efficiency, it manages to outdo even the film in scatological shock effects, thanks to that old-fashioned stage device, vivid language.

Can the theater succeed in wooing young people? George Wachtel, who conducted the 1997 audience study, blames their lack of interest on a 1980s decline in arts education in schools. "Today's 18-to-24-year-olds did not have the exposure in their formative years," he says. Most Broadway shows, along with groups like the Theatre Development Fund, are trying to address that by sponsoring organized class visits and events like Kids' Night, when children accompanied by an adult can get in free. Another factor keeping kids away, of course, is high ticket prices. Since its opening, Rent has set aside a block of up-front seats for $ 20, available only on the day of the performance; most other youth-oriented shows have copied this successful gimmick.

Producers are also looking for new ways to market their shows to young theatergoers. Rent distributes book covers in schools. Hedwig hands out postcards at rock clubs and has created logo stickers for backpacks and skateboards. These efforts, of course, can help attract more than just skateboarders. "Once people hear that the younger folks are going," says Drew Hodges, whose Spotco agency created the ad campaigns for De La Guarda and other shows, "there's a real aspirational crowd that is 30 to 45 and wants to be in the same places as the trend makers who are 22." Young trend makers going to the theater--imagine that!

--Reported by William Tynan/New York

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