New York Times, Sunday, August 4, 1996
Finding a Niche on Broadway- on the Sidewalk
By Joel P. Engardio
"Squatters" are laying claim to the first two rows of the hit Broadway musical "Rent."
Around daybreak every day but Monday, a dozen or so young people from the five boroughs and beyond start staking out patches of cement in front of the Nederlander Theater on 41st Street just West of Broadway. They are hoping for one of the 34 best seats in the house at a pauper's price of $20 each. But the tickets don't go on sale for 12 hours, at 6 P.M.
The cast proposed - and the producers agreed to - slashing the ticket prices on the theory it would make the show more accessible to the young people and starving artists that "Rent" chronicles. There is, however, no age requirement for the tickets.
Three months after "Rent" opened, the $20 ticket line has taken on cult proportions and has become an extension of the show. Some ticket-seekers show up as often as three times a week, and the cast recognizes regulars, like Kitt Lavoie of the Bronx. Many of the 15 cast members signed a card for Mr. Lavoie's 21st birthday recently, and the narrator, Anthony Rapp, introduced himself to Mr. Lavoie's parents the night he brought them to see the show. (They sat in the $20 section, naturally.)
"I'm really not a psychotic fan," said Mr. Lavoie, who has seen the show 10 times. "I'm almost certain I'm not going to marry anyone in the cast. But there are some fans who think they are, and those are the ones who scare me."
One cast member, Gwen Stewart, is not spooked. "The kids up front are the lifeline of the whole place," she said. "They whoop and holler and don't use the usual Broadway tact. It's good to see those faces."
Some $20 ticket holders go home to shower off the sidewalk grit between 6 P.M. and 8 P.M., when the show starts. Others wander
in as is, with T-shirts, torn jeans and the
pent-up energy more often found at a rock concert.
They are obviously perplexing and occasionally annoying to the older, better- dressed, less-grimy patrons sitting behind
them. "It's a great feeling and an honor they keep coming," said Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Mimi, an addict struggling to overcome her habit. "But they make a lot of noise up front, and I don't know if the people paying $70 a ticket really enjoy it."
The Nederlander box-office employee assigned to the line, Justin Plowman, says bonding occurs among the lucky 34. They often go out for dinner together after the show, and a recent group passed around a contact sheet on which they listed their addresses and telephone numbers.
Jennifer Reichert, 21, of the Bronx, is a nine-show veteran. She packs a cooler with food and brings other items like board games and blankets. "There's a limit," she said, "to how much stuff you can bring on the line and not be embarrassed when you have to drag it into the show with you."
Ms. Reichert calls the communal experience "crisis-bonding" because of the in- tense competition for the seats. The more experienced squatters patrol the line and close ranks when the magic number is reached, usually long before Mr. Plowman shows up at 10 A.M. "We had to fight together for the common goal of making sure we got in," said Dawn Carey, 24, of Fort Myers, Fla., who along with two friends raced a couple from the subway for the first places in line. "I saw someone with a pillow and figured they were going to 'Rent.'"
Trouble breaks out when someone tries to scalp a $20 ticket for profit, which is considered sacrilege to the "squatters." "Scalpers try to pay bums to wait on line," Mr. Plow- man said. "There used to be fistfights."
For James Anderson, 19, of Manhattan, getting to know his fellow front-row audience members was as entertaining as the show. "I met a lot of weird and strange people," he said. "Maybe the 'Rent' cast of tomorrow."