Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2002

By James Verini

“Seasons of Love.” “Another Day.” “One Song Glory.” “Take Me or Leave Me.”

To most people, these are just a series of sentence fragments, or possibly the names of Elton John’s cats. But to a young woman named Kimi Sasaki, and to a cadre of devoted musical fans like her, these are the passwords to bliss. They are gospel.

What they really are, for those of you living under that generous-sized rock that skips most new musicals, are just a few of the songs from “Rent,” the fishnet-laden, “La Boheme”-inspired rock opera by Jonathan Larson that exploded onto Broadway in 1996 and spawned successful touring companies.

If you go to the Wilshire Theatre to see “Rent” — returning Wednesday to Los Angeles for the first time in 3 1/2 years — you likely will witness several dozen Kimis waiting eagerly outside, in a state of suspended (non-chemical) euphoria.

What is it about “Rent” that has attracted a respectable cult following, though not quite on the order of the Grateful Dead?

“It’s real,” says Sasaki, 21, an undergraduate at UC Irvine. She should know. She has seen “Rent” eight times, knows just about every song by heart, and runs a Web site devoted to one of the actors in the current road tour. “Everyone feels lost and confused at moments in their lives. But you find strength in your friends and family, and go on. That’s what it’s about.”

Sasaki admits that she has never been, much less met, an HIV-positive bohemian artist trying to make ends meet while belting out anthems in the cafes of downtown Manhattan’s ethnic melting pot (the character description for more or less every character in “Rent”).

But the show’s return to town is nonetheless a watershed moment for her. Sasaki and her fellow “Rent”-heads, as they sometimes call themselves, will camp out overnight in front of the Wilshire Theatre for tickets. They will spend hours e-mailing each other to discuss staging details and cast members. They will whisper in hushed tones about new videotape bootlegs of the show, and they will travel hundreds of miles to see the show again — and again — after its Los Angeles run ends Nov. 17. Some of them will even travel across the state or country to audition for the show. At an open audition in Burbank last month, “Rent”-heads who also act had come from as far as San Francisco and Boston to sing 12 bars in front of an overworked casting director.

Why all the fuss? “Rent” is fun, sure. The music is catchy. But the stuff of obsession?

Sasaki points to one of her favorite numbers, the duet “Without You,” which is sung by the dying musician, Roger, and the heroin-addicted prostitute, Mimi, the lovers at the center of the story. “It’s not just Roger and Mimi’s song, even though they’re the ones singing it. It’s everyone’s song who’s ever been in love.”

“I think people relate to the no-day-but-today message,” said Megan Maxwell, 20, a student at USC and 16-show veteran who has traveled as far as New York and San Francisco to see new productions. “Everybody wants to live their life that way. But they can’t always do it.”

Emily Brunsten, a shy 14-year-old who got hooked after seeing the show twice on Broadway, agreed. “I had problems with friends and everything and just didn’t really, like, care. But ‘Rent’ made me appreciate my life more. It’s about what a gift it is to be living.”

Much to Emily’s chagrin, her mother is taking her to see the show but won’t allow her to camp out for tickets — a rite of passage for “Rent”-heads known as “rushing.” More than six years after its premiere, the Broadway production of “Rent” and its touring companies still carry on the tradition of reserving the first two rows of seats for sale the day of the show (two hours before the curtain). They’re sold at $20 each. (Standard ticket prices range from $32 to $69.50.)

For die-hard fans, this means a lot of long nights spent on cold pavement. “Rent”-heads take it very seriously.

Chrissy Tamplin, a 24-year-old computer engineer, has rushed six times — since April. “After a while you get to know the cast and the cast gets to know you, and they visit you on the rush line,” she said. “It’s a big thing, you know.”

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Taylor Williams, 16. “You end up falling asleep next to somebody you don’t know, talking to someone you never met. There are roaches on the floor. Homeless people offer us money.”

For Williams, rushing is a way to get closer to the dignity-in-poverty spirit of the characters. Despite the fact that its story originates in 19th century Paris, “Rent” is, for Williams, a trip to an exotic part of his own society, one seldom glimpsed in the suburbs of Los Angeles. “There’s a lot that isn’t Rockefeller Center. There’s a lot out there that most of us don’t see.”

But for Sasaki, “Rent” is still all about the love. “The messages are timeless,” she says. ” ‘No Day but Today.”Seasons of Love.’ You’re not alone. It’s very inspirational. And that’s why after all these years it’s still around. It’s a celebration of life. What can be more important than that?”