“We’re not gonna pay last year’s Rent!” Those of you who don’t recall these lyrics still have a chance to pay your dues by experiencing Rent, the musical. The final curtains will close on Sunday, September 7 on the live performance of Broadway’s seventh longest running show; after that Rent will only be available on film. Though Rent came to life on Broadway a decade ago, there is something so intimate and strong about it, that it continues to draw crowds.
New York City’s famous Broadway show Rent seems to perfect the beauty of storytelling by portraying a distinct microcosm of the real world. Something happens every time the physical curtains open on its, at first glance, shoddy set at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre. Laden with music, energetic routines and humor, Rent actually carries a few very powerful themes beyond theatre antics. If you look just a bit deeper underneath the entertaining aspect of the musical, you will find that the interior themes outline the complexities of the contemporary society. Made for the NY crowd in 1989, it still applies to our culture today. The home setting really brings something to the table and leaves a lasting impression with the viewer.
At its core, Rent attacks the issues of the modern lifestyle that takes its roots from the 90s. It was based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, which itself was based on an 1849 novel by Henri Murger called La Vie de Bohème (Neven). The play was written and composed by Jonathan Larson, who himself was analogous to the protagonists of the musical. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to witness the major success of his creation, such as the era of the popularity, rave reviews and awards that followed. After seven years of toiling in poverty in order to bring Rent to life, Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at his home in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He tragically collapsed on January 25, 1996, the night before previews were to open at the Off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop (“Jonathan Larson”). That same year the musical won a number of admirable awards, including several Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Original Score) and Drama Desk Awards (Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Orchestrations), a couple of Theatre World Awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and finally the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “an honor bestowed on only a handful of musicals since the inception of that award” (“Rent: History & Awards”).
The cast consists of eight spirited actors who play a group of young aspiring artists struggling to make ends meet. The friends stick together through the harsh realities of life, such as the bare minimum of paying their rent in the cultural and artistic capital that is New York City. Of the two main characters, Roger is a musician and his roommate Mark is a filmmaker and video artist. Perhaps the author of the musical is making a comment, then, that artists of the East Village lead lives that are not dominated by a hunger for money; rather, they soulfully search to provide a meaning to their lives beyond materialism. For example, when Mark is offered a job at a magazine to film homeless people for public view, his heart is not into it, but he eventually had no option but to take the job for the mere cash flow.
There is a great focus on the social economic aspects of everyday life throughout the musical. We learn that Mark and Roger have evaded paying the rent for a year, but their luck is running out as their landlord Benny gives them an ultimatum. He agrees to let their rent slide once again if they don’t protest his plan to build a studio over the adjacent parking lot, which currently lodges the homeless. This offer makes the characters question the morality of such an agreement versus the alternative: not being able to survive in a materialism-driven world. The reality is that even if they could escape paying rent, there are other bills and worries, and in one instance Mark and Roger have to burn their old NYU papers just to keep warm in the apartment. Another example of the destitute conditions is the instance when star-crossed lovers Mark and Mimi meet. She comes to him seeking shelter and warmth, since her apartment’s electricity has gone out. In the end, the group decides to attend the protest in hope that altruism will pay off. So it seems as though the artists of NYC get rewarded for their lives’ work in ways other than financial stability that most people seek as part of the American dream. The lyrics from the song Roger and Mark sing at one of the climatic points sum this up: “When you’re living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own…we’re dying in America to come into our own…I’m not alone.”
Needless to say, Broadway would not be Broadway if the illustrated themes weren’t gracefully and flawlessly performed by means of song and dance. The cast of young entertainers showed a great artistic talent throughout the spectacle, transforming a seemingly modest and compact stage into a whole world. Every little square inch of the stage seemed to be filled with the grandeur of the performances. The passions of the artists penetrated the air around the audience, and the memory of their dedication and fervor still echoes long after the curtains closed. According to Bence Olveczky’s review in the Tech Online journal, director Michael Greif and choreographer Marlie Yearby have cleverly hyped the pace of the performance to distract viewers from noticing the shortcomings of the play. He described the actors as using “the set as their playground, jumping and running all over the place as if in a rock concert,” adding that this energy resulted in “preventing the audience from reflecting too much on the actual happenings.”
Besides the dimension that a live performance can bring, the movie is a powerful addition to understanding the meaning and depth of Rent. Some of the issues raised may be lost in the hectic transition scenes on stage. Viewers may not get the full effect simply because it is hard to catch all the words and all the emotion of the play. The movie version, released in 2005, was directed by Chris Columbus, the director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone. Six of the original Broadway actors play their own roles in the film.
The movie was made subsequently to the play in an attempt to complement it. On the one hand, it introduces a brilliant way to capture all of this for multiple viewing sessions without the $120 a ticket that Broadway requires. The film includes details that are hard to capture on stage, where the imagination of the viewers has to fill in the blanks. Moreover, now that the DVD version came out, it is much more convenient for viewers to enjoy the magic of Rent in their homes, with the luxury of managing the performance with the touch of a button. Because it is a film, change of scenery was employed much more effectively, as were the angles of the shots. We as an audience are able to see the world literally through the lens of Mark’s camera, with the aid of special effects. Also the day after Mimi and Roger meet, we see the note she has left him on the window inviting him to brunch. The scene where the gang dances on the train is also a difference between the stage and the movie. These details are endearing and are only possible to achieve on film. Nevertheless, renowned film critic Roger Ebert said of the movie version, “Those who haven’t seen Rent on the stage will sense they’re missing something, and they are.” Most probably, the film is directed for an audience already familiar with the Broadway version and not with the intention to create new fans.
Naturally, Rent is not exempt from imperfection. The fundamental flaw some critics note is that the music and storyline don’t correspond. While the songs show multiple ranges and widely appeal to the audience, the lyrics seem to be awkwardly forced in order to tie into the plot. Roger Ebert criticizes the characterization of the cast, calling Roger and Mark one dimensional characters. These two are not believable characters, especially Mark, who according to Ebert “doesn’t even know the handle of his hand-cranked 8-mm camera should not be revolving as he films, and whose footage looks like jerky home movies.” However, he also complimented the complexity of Mimi’s and Angel’s characters, who, in showing multiple internal struggles, came alive to the viewer.
Dance lovers may be disappointed with the lack of large-scale, full cast dancing. While this certainly seems to be missing from both versions, the grandeur of the music overpowers this criticism and makes up for it. In Rent, the focus is on the music and the lyrics, which explore the more somber characteristics of life: internal struggles, heartbreak, and loss. This is not unusual, as the current Broadway favorite musical Wicked also focuses less on the dancing and more on the storyline. Such was the director’s choice, and perhaps it eliminated the possibility that dancing would detract from the message. While the brief song and dance “Tango Maureen” adds some comical relief, most of the others deal with serious matters.
The song “Seasons of love” (which opens Act II in the Broadway musical, and begins the movie version altogether) really sums up the essence of the plot. How do you measure the length of a year? One way is to count up the minutes, as the title of the song suggests; but on the other hand the lyrics present the following alternatives: in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife. “In 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year in the life? How about love?”
Rent explores the theme of love and the role it plays in today’s world. Viewers may be surprised to find that there was a lot of gay/lesbian activity demonstrated by the musical. It brought up the many changing aspects of contemporary society, including openness to gay relations as well as drug abuse and the commonness of HIV. Mark’s girlfriend Maureen leaves him for another woman, for instance. The other gay couple featured Angel, a glamorous drag queen with a big heart, whose lover is an ex-MIT professor; both partners had HIV. Half of the cast seems to be affected by this epidemic. Even the main heterosexual character, Roger, finds out in the beginning of the show that his ex girlfriend left him a lasting present in the form of the horrible infection, and committed suicide herself. There is a dark mood to the musical as the cast tries to deal with these negative issues. Mimi is a drug junkie in addition to being HIV positive, and Roger is drawn even closer to her as this weakness was in his past as well. However, one thing seems to remain familiar: young adults struggling with all of these issues while trying to both become individuals in their community and afford a living.
The ending of the musical also has its problems. In the movie version, there is a voice over effect that creates illusion of action and confusion in the closing scene. Mimi is missing and the rest of the friends try to look for her, realizing she probably resorted back to drugs and is living on the streets. Finally, she is found and Roger sings his song, adding: “it’s not much, but it took all year.” Mimi shudders and wakes up, describing her near-death experience of seeing Angel. It is highly unlikely that she awoke as easily as that, after weeks of living as a junkie on the cold streets of NY during wintertime. The last shot zooms in on Angel, concluding Mark’s video and the movie, and leaving the viewer wanting more.
Despite the slight inconsistencies present in the execution of Rent in both mediums, it serves the purpose of exposing controversial ideas. The loose ends are inevitable in the short length of time allotted for the performance; especially on stage, where props are limited and there is only one take to get it right. With that in mind, the art of the performance is achieved through the message it conveys and the feeling the audience comes home with. Rent is powerful and exceptionally moving; it is a work of art that will apply to audiences through the ages. It explores the uncertainties in life and the social overcoming of obstacles. As the theme song of the musical goes, there is “no day but today” to live to the fullest, because the future is unpredictable and the past is unchangeable. There is no day but today to reflect on the issues inspired by the dilemmas in Rent.
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Angel Performing. Photograph. ACED Magazine. 2003. 7 May 2008 <http://www.aced magazine.com/websitepictures/rent_photo.jpg>.
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Marcus, Joan. Rent Cast. Photograph. Pent State York. 2006. 7 May 2008 <http://www.pullocenter.yk.psu.edu/images/rent.jpg>.
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Rent. Dir. Chris Columbus. Perf. Rosario Dawson, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L Martin, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. 2005. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2005.
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Rent Stage Set. Photograph. Nick’s Rent Page. Ed. Nichlas Barnard. 31 May 2004. 7 May 2008 <http://www.inmff.net/Rent/set.jpg>.
Roger and Mimi with Rent background. Photograph. Rent Movie Reviews Online. 2008. 7 May 2008 <http://rentmovie.com/rent-movie-review-images/rent-movie-reviews-of-film_.jpg>.
“Seasons of Love.” Rent Soundtrack. Youtube.com. 2008. 5 May 2008 <http://youtube.com/watch?v=_tCd7SKBDYg>.
Sowers, Matt. Mark with Camera. Photograph. The Daily Collegian Online. 2008. 7 May 2008 <http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2005/01/01-13-05tdc/01-13-05darts-12s.jpg>.