“Rent”: In Film and On Stage2005IntroductionTragically, every time Rent is performed on stage or rendered on film, it ends up being compared with the earlier version and viewed with contempt. Critics have compared the latest film version, directed by Chris Columbus, with stage productions and has been interpreted as a flat, unintelligent rendition of the original Broadway production that, in turn, had met with unfriendly criticisms for lacking the musical richness and the artistic merit of Puccini’s great opera, La Boheme, set in 19th century Paris, the inspiration and guide of both the film and the plays.
Ironically, when some modern directors ventured to transplant the opera into a twentieth century Paris surrounding, it provoked debates and arguments inevitably challenging the worth of such renditions. So, one has to be cautious of the noticeable aversion about new renditions of Rent when reviewing either the stage production or its mis-en-scene. A Theatre review of Rent Based on Puccini's classic opera La Boheme, the late composer/librettist, Jonathan Larson's innovative rock opera Rent depicts the story of the frustrated, impoverished East Village artists of the late-1980s and their struggle to live and pay their rent.
The storyline of this play, first performed in 1996, that heralded a new age for the Broadway musical in a nutshell is this: Roger, an HIV-diseased songwriter, trying his best to write “one great song” before he dies, has just come back from rehabilitation center and has joined his documentary filmmaker roommate, Mark. The story begins on Christmas Eve of 1989 with the two friends worrying about how they would raise the fund for paying the rent due to their landlord Benny, an ex-chum, who has turned insensitive and lost his empathy after his marriage to a well-off woman belonging to the fashionable society of New York, who pushes him upwardly.
The next week, their friend, Collins, a gay ex-professor who is attacked on his first night back to the city and is looked after by the empathetic drag queen Angel, joins them. Roger, cut off from the world, has a halfhearted relation with a striptease performer, Mimi, while Mark attempts to come to terms with Maureen his care-free ex-girl friend, who is going out with Joanne, her new lesbian crush.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre at St. Louis began the year 2005 (Jan 7-9) with the rock musical, Rent, which opens up with the theme song, “Seasons of Love, ” one of the musicals’ most gripping. Unfortunately, its author Jonathan Larson died at age 35 just before the show was formally released. He was suffering from an undetectable Marfan disease. The production, directed by Michael Greif, though has flaws, which raised eyebrows of the erudite people familiar with Puccini’s, La Boheme.
But, it exhilarated the youngsters who prefer the type of music that Rent has — deafening, incoherent, and, perhaps, a bit silly. La Boheme supercedes and remains untouched because of the grandeur of opera, setting of the 19th century Paris, the costumes, songs and compositions for which even a “Small-scale Boheme shows some range”, as Richard Covello’s review in the Opera Theatre North sometimes in 1991 was titled. The aura of Café Momus of 19th century Paris, i.e, Puccini’s Paris (Waltz songs by the opera’s fille de joie Musetta, the string quartets from the piano, the performance of the Soprano singer (Mimi), the outstanding baritones (Covello, 2005) were also enriched by the string tradition of opera music.
Rent obviously does not even pose to have that since it deals with the problem of urban bohemians of New York, a century after Puccini’s La Boheme, when tuberculosis is no more considered a terminal disease. Jonathan Larson’s New York is a city of the late 1980’s when AIDS is showing its dreading face and which we all vow to fight against to bring the world to a healthy, booming and lively place.
In Grief’s Rent, we are back to New York of the late 1980s, the disease and the dreams of generation that wants to create music and a lifestyle of its own. To quote Larson, it is the narration of “a community celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century” (as cited in Crouse, 2005).