The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Monday, February 27, 2017


November 23, 2005   Columbia  135 minutes
As the undisputed Bway phenomenon of the '90s, Rent followed the line of once-a-decade blockbusters, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, The Phantom of the Opera; running over a dozen years at the largely neglected Nederlander Theater in the hinterlands below 42nd Street. On top of its own virtues, the musical came packed with a true-life tragedy that is pure Show-Biz legend; the shocking death of author Jonathan Larson on the eve of the Off-Bway premiere--ironically the biggest shot of publicity since Gower Champion's death on the opening  night  of  42nd  Street. 
Only Larson's demise was sadder for coming at the very beginning of what promised to be a champion career. Yet such drama didn't hype the show beyond its due merit. Whether Larson would've tinkered with it further makes no difference; it feels fully complete; helpfully shaped, no doubt, by director Michael Greif. The score, virtually thru-sung, is a heady mix of rock, blues, pop, & punk seamlessly worked thru the idiom of musical theater. It's just as Larson intended, "musical theater for the MTV generation." As a flash point in the Zeitgeist, it compares most to Hair; both roaring with uncensored Youth; both raging against the establishment, whether over War or Disease; both packed with wall-to-wall music; both cultivating a devotion bordering on the religious.

I wasn't a quick convert to the phenomenon, tho I certainly picked up the CD the moment it was released. But if I hadn't any negative impressions, per se, neither was I compelled enuf to score a ticket to the show when I went to NY for the first time in five years that October of 1996. I was more excited about the rebirth of Chicago. But later  that   year,   in   tandem  with  December   (a  season
fraught with anxiety for me--and when most of the show takes place) I fell down the rabbit hole, and absorbed the CD with a rare intensity, in awe of Larson's achievement. I came to love it--much more, as I found out, than any of my 40-something theater friends. By the time I finally saw the show in March 1999 (on tour in SF) the bloom was somewhat off the rose, and I understood why many had resistance. I knew the score well, but to the uninitiated it was near impossible to make out the lyrics in a noisy theater--and this is a thru-sung show.  For me, the musical remained a strictly aural pleasure--one in which I visualized my own pictures. Tho it's doubtful Larson saw far enuf to imagine a movie of Rent, he unwittingly planted the idea for the film's director in a lyric of "Light My Candle":

               Our eyes'll adjust
                              Thank God for the moon
               Maybe it's not the moon at all
               I hear Spike Lee's shooting
                              down the street

Lee was attached to the film at one point, and it's easy to see where his trademark touches (the operatic emotions, the moving sidewalks, the saturated colors) would suit the show's ethos, but alas Rent did not become "a Spike Lee joint." For true street cred, it might've been an intersting match for Jim Jarmusch.  Or, Susan Seidelman who captured the East Village milieu with such painterly strokes in Desperately Seeking Susan. But Rent was too big a smash to stay cheap & gritty, to stay "downtown." Still, the material, equal parts rock concert and opera, was challenging to translate into a movie musical. Yet, the same was said of Hair, which exceeded any and all reasonable expectations, by transforming a shaggy free-for-all into a work of poetic flair. But Hair was lensed by a
Czech emigre with keen eyes on America. Rent was made by. . . the director of Home Alone. Chris Columbus came in thru the Spielberg factory in Hlwd and quickly rose to writer/director of hugely popular mainstream comedies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months and Stepmom. Freshly off two Harry Potter movies, he wasn't an obvious candidate for what would seem to be the ultimate indie street musical. And if there are stretches of the movie that reek of Hlwd-ism, there are enuf parts that surprise with their acuity or enchantment. I've no idea the process that went into choosing him; tho I feel it must be noted that one of the twelve film producers was Robert De Niro. The screenplay was given to Stephen Chbosky, riding an enormous success as author of a wildly popular Young Adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower--presumably under the logic that Chbosky "got" youth. Ironically, the cast went the other direction. One could play a parlor game imagining Hlwd stars in all the lead roles (Catherine Zeta Jones as Maureen, Justin Timberlake as Mark, Jennifer Lopez as Mimi--you get the idea) but Columbus wisely went with the original cast (tho they were now ten years older than their 20-something characters. However, two were missing: Daphne Rubin-Vega who was pregnant at the time of filming and Fredi Walker, always a decade older than the rest now in her mid-40s. A younger Tracie Thomas inherited the role of Joanne (isn't that the go-to name for the oldest gal around? See: Company). For Mimi, Rosario Dawson steps into the role like Doris Day slipping into The Pajama Game. It's a solid fit, and she's frankly more photogenic than Rubin-Vega. (Columbus drools over her repeatedly in the CD commentary.) And yes, she is quite pretty and does the part justice. Jesse L. Martin, now better known than any of the others from his weekly role as a police detective in TV's Law & Order brings an aura of joy to the angst-ridden narrative, along with Wilson Jermaine Heredia's well-worn Angel. Idina Menzel was coming off a Tony-winning career peak in Wicked, and Taye Diggs was exploiting his smooth Hlwd-hotness on screens big & small--the two were married by then-- tho not forever.

Chbosky's screenplay was essentially a job of editing, selecting passages of recitative to turn into spoken dialogue, and restructuring a time-line narrative that extends the long Xmas eve first act over several days. One major change was beginning the film with "Seasons of Love"    (the   show's  one  bona  fide  hit)    sung   by   the
principals in a line across a bare stage--setting upfront the score as the movie's primary ingredient. On stage the number served as a chaser to intermission before heading down the spiral of the second act narrative, but the film needed no such moment, which in fact would hinder the momentum of the story. As it stands, it's a terrific opening, paying tribute to the musical as a true stage phenomenon, but also vocally introducing us to the players. The story then begins with Mark's raw film footage (which frankly looks rank amateur) but nicely melds into full color wide screen; and we are off following Mark on bicycle starting the title song--a full out rocker--and here's where our hopes first shudder; the number builds into a huge production with an entire city block of angry tenants simultaneously out in balcony force, singing their lungs out and throwing garbage  pails  of   burning   papers   into   the   street---little   bonfires   that

remain burning in the background thru "You'll See," moved up to the next scene. Not only over-produced; it's fairly ridiculous, and arsonist to boot. But there's some recovery in the next few songs, done with some degree of inspiration, and better still, restraint. "One Song Glory" is taken up to the rooftop--always a winning location in NY musicals; but also layered with flashbacks to Roger's romance with junkie g.f. April, now dead following her discovery of catching AIDS--not a bad way to convey his backstory.  The filmmakers recognized that much of the sung recitative (including many phone machine messages) is better dropped for spoken dialogue (something that should be noted by Andrew Lloyd Webber) giving breathing room between songs, the better to absorb them; to enjoy them. On stage it's a concert/opera, but on film it doesn't want to be either. And of course it's the songs that make  the  show. Things perk up with "Tango  Maureen,"  which  becomes  another

production number but more forgivably so for being Mark's delusion under concussion. A vacant warehouse filled with tango couples in black; here's where we view the much-discussed Maureen for the first time: Idina Menzel in flaming red dress and harsh, smeared lips in erotic clinch with her dancing partner. It works nicely as a musical fantasy, and distinguishes the movie from the stage.  "Life Support" is among several edits that should have remained sung, and  "Out Tonight" has Mimi working the Cat Scratch Club before preying on Roger back home. "Another Day," which in its second half becomes "No Day But Today" (a harmonic convergence of exquisite melody) is too abstract a stage picture to translate successfully on screen. But "Santa Fe" is a slice of groovy heaven that could've come from Galt MacDermot--it almost feels like being stoned. Columbus sets it in a subway car, brilliantly juxtaposing its urban grime against visions of western serenity. The beautifully staged sequence incorporates a captive audience of riders in thrall. I had a single such experience once in Buenos Aires, with a latter-day Louis Prima swinging a sax and some vocal funk. (In all my years of NY subway riding I never saw an "entertainer" who wasn't simply annoying) The number is so wonderful it's a shame that Columbus missed an obvious button: the car jolts to a rude stop, the doors fly open and the urban crowds  rush  in.   Instead it just ends.
"I'll Cover You" follows immediately, and the song is so infectious it requires nothing more than the joy Jesse & Wilson bring to it, walking down a Village block. On stage the entire first act took place on Christmas Eve, but on film the actions--more convincingly--stretch over several days, which explains the omission of "Christmas Bells," a full cast collage building narrative momentum, all leading to the priceless final tinkling strains of "The Twelve Days of Xmas" as Maureen--making at last her first appearance, blithely asks, "Joanne, which way to the stage?" There's no reason the story had to begin on Dec 24th; Maureen's performance and what follows thru the Life Cafe seemed better suited for Xmas eve, and could then include "Christmas Bells." But never mind. As a satire of performance art, Maureen's show is as brilliant as it is facile & tedious. I had always visualized it set in an empty lot, chain link, brick and snow. But here it's inside an abandoned warehouse (no doubt the same one used in "Tango Maureen") and hasn't much punch, fizzling into a poorly staged (and filmed) riot. Once again excess takes a toll, calling into question how or why Joanne would run so elaborate a technical show on her own. She's a lawyer, remember. Doesn't it also seem elaborate and unnecessary to film parts in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco? (How did they miss Toronto?)

The musical's centerpiece, its time-specific  manifesto is, of course, "La Vie Boheme"--which like many songs in Hair is a list song.

       Bisexuals, Trisexuals, Homo Sapiens
       Carcinogens, Hallucinogens, Men
       Pee Wee Herman
       German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein
       Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa
       Carmina Burana

Do you know that last one? I didn't. It's a 1983 Ray Manzarek (of The Doors) album, riffed off a 1930's composition by Carl Orff (who?) based on a medieval poetry collection--clearly one of Larson's personal totems. On stage the scene plays across one long table with the cast seated Last Supper-style; the film has the luxury of incorporating the entire East Village Life Cafe, with patrons in back booths, and one central runway made of two-tops shoved together. It's a bright & jolly sequence, and the cast--reunited years after their bonded breakthru--have the time of their lives laying it down for posterity.

The movie takes greater liberties with the musical's second act; reducing whole songs to spoken dialogue and filling others entirely with montage; characters drifting, Mimi on & off & back on smack; Mark grudgingly taking corporate (and high-paying) work; Collins caretaking a dying Angel; time passing--all to "Without You." Happily the movie omits the egregious "Contact"--as needless and silly a "metaphoric" sex dance as "Tick Tock" was in Company. Chbosky removed all the parental phone messages that pepper the show, which would leave all blood relatives out, but adds an invented committment ceremony for Joanne & Maureen, introduced by a proud, posh & liberal Anna Deavere Smith as Joanne's mom, with a suburban Randy Graff as Maureen's. I don't quite buy the incendiary argument in song, "Take Me or Leave Me" taking place in full view of all the guests, even dragging them inside as voyeurs when they step away for some privacy. But at least there's some real energy in the scene. On the other hand, Angel's funeral is poorly directed, the energy somehow lacking, but the follow-up in the graveyard, "Goodbye Love"--the unraveling of friends & lovers--is intriguingly staged   as  the   group  climbs  up  a  hill  of   tombstones.

We're back to montage--what else is there to do?-- as they all go their separate ways. "What You Own" is a laudable roar against corporate dominance, and one of the better hard-rock numbers in musical theater. Perhaps it's my advanced age but I find Mark's attitude to his new job petty and ungrateful. Given his new access to equipment, experience, connections; to say nothing of income, he'd be wise to use these gifts to further his own ambitions. But no, we see him back with his obsolete crank-camera obscura; his "documentary" unveiled at the end--a collage of non-linear images; in "arty" over- or under-exposed shots, out of focus, shaky or burned at the edges--hardly suggestive of a film career in Mark's future. Nor is Roger's "one great song" unveiled to Mimi on her deathbed the great reveal the show has been building to. But no matter, Larson delivers so consistently thru-out we can't expect more. (We'll never know how much more tinkering he would've done given the chance.) Columbus lets us down in this last scene--strangely lacking any punch. They perk up for the final chorus of "No Day But Today" and we're out--without they cathartic theatrical climax and full-cast encore.

The stage show remains fresh and accessible to compare with the movie by a another "film" made just three years after Columbia's release; the final Bway performance filmed live at the Nederlander in September 2008. It's exceptionally well captured, particularly in the clarity of its soundtrack (often a problem in-house), but also in the devotional attention from the audience. If only they did this with all closing hit musicals. Fascinating too, is the stellar umpteenth replacement cast 12 years into the show's life. While the movie happily recorded the (almost complete) original cast, these latter day players are fine indeed. Interestingly, the film's Joanne, Tracie Thoms is back and nicely matured into the role. Terrific, too, is Renee Elise Goldsberry, who would ascend to Tony glory in Hamilton, as Mimi; and as Roger, Will Chase challenges Adam Pascal's signature on the part. The two actors would compete for and fill the same roles on Bway, but Chase would ultimately claim the greater fame with his many forays in TV, including musical roles in Smash and Nashville. With a live audience of rabid Rent-heads charging the cast with electricity, there's a lot more visceral energy here.
I first saw the movie at the Dolby screening room in San Francisco three days before it opened nationally on November 23, 2005. Reviews were mixed, and the film grossed a mere $29,000,000 domestically, a shocking repudiation by its supposed youth audience--but the Zeitgeist had shifted by then. Even the medical procedures had changed so much as to make AZT a relic of the past. In addition the film's parochial milieu didn't translate globally, yielding a mere $2,500,000 more coin. All told, disappointing news in a Hlwd that had just taken renewed interest in Bway musicals.

The word "rent" has a double meaning; the transactional one which everyone recognizes, but also a schism; a split in a party or group--which is the journey taken by Larson's family of Bohemians. Aspects of both meanings also inform another colloquial usage, what some of us used to call our begetters: the 'rents. (Rent makes no use of it tho it has enuf parental phone messages to earn the usage). My own remaining 'rent: Mother, now 84, miserably widowed, and in frail health but hanging on for some unfathomable reason, extracted an emotional toll in my obligatory nightly phone calls and relentless Saturday treks to San Jose for the same joyless visit, tasteless lunch and pointless recriminations. After a fender-bender in the Safeway parking lot she had to stop driving entirely, relying more & more on her much younger Puerto Rican neighbor, Lourdes, and her nurse-practicioner at Kaiser, Mary, who out of pity grew into Mother's watchdog and therapist. The weather was as ceaslessly grim in the country's mood; as the Bush/Cheney cabal blundered deeper into Iraq and proved their ineptness further in responding to (or rather not) a hurricane which nearly wiped out New Orleans. All this after a highly suspicious re-election of whom many considered the Worst President in American History (who knew there was worse yet to come?) made for scant good news along any front. As usual, the place to bury my head in the sand was in writing, reading, listening to music, watching movies & TV--all happily available pursuits enjoyed in solitude.

During my youthful residence in New York, I was strictly a West Village habitué, the East Village in '75 was still way too skid row to warrant interest--as was Soho, then a scary ghost town of dark abandoned warehouses. But by the early '80s that had all changed and in my frequent jaunts to NY (mostly staying with Laura off Bleecker St, or with Reno in Tribeca) a good deal of our trawling shifted East, to loud and nameless bars and all-night Ukranian diners. How young we were, always looking for love, or sex; still full of boundless if unfocussed ambitions, still innocent of any plagues, or even the thought thereof; still thriving on the pulse & rhythm of the World's Greatest City. Yes--La Vie Boheme.

Next Up: The Producers
Report CardRent
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity: B  
Songs from Bway: 20
Songs Cut from Bway:18 (including long passages
            of recitative & phone msgs)
Worst Omission:  "Christmas Bells"
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "Santa Fe"
Casting: Bway originals + two newbies
Standout Cast: Rosario Dawson
Cast from Bway: Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel 
     Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia,
     Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs
Direction: Uneven; stellar & flat moments
Choreography:  Minimal
Scenic Design:  East Village collage (NY, LA, SF)
Costumes:  Trash & Vaudeville
Titles:  Over opening: "Seasons of Love"
Oscar noms:  None

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