Rent: No Day But Today
Musical Book, Lyrics, and Music Written by: Jonathon Larson
Movie Directed by: Chris Columbus
Movie Screenplay Written by: Stephen Chbosky
Reviewed by: Justine Manzano
I don’t think I know of a single person who has not heard the story behind the scenes of the phenomenon of the musical Rent. A young, talented and hard-working musical writer by the name of Jonathon Larson gets turned down time after time before creating his masterpiece, Rent. He gets it produced, and it is quickly on the fast track to being a hit. The day before it’s debut in a downtown theater, Larson passes away of an aortic aneurism, and we are left with the haunting hit smash he wanted all his life—and he never got to see it succeed. Rent, in its frank discussion of life and death as an artist in Bohemia, is as fitting a tribute as any to its writer, and with the recent buzz surrounding the movie’s upcoming DVD release, I felt the Broadway musical and the movie deserved some G-Pop treatment.
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Rent mainly follows a group of characters living a Lower East Side bohemian lifestyle in the 80’s. Artists all, there are four major stories here that you can’t keep your eyes off of. The first is the story of the roommates. Mark, an aspiring filmmaker who serves as the narrator for the piece, Roger, a musician and recovering heroine addict with HIV, Tom Collins, a computer genius and anarchist who also has HIV, Maureen, a performance artist, and Benny, a smooth talker, used to live in an apartment together. Collins left to teach and Benny married a rich woman, buying the complex and telling Roger and Mark they can live there rent-free, before changing his mind, forcing them to catch up on an entire years rent (hence the name).
Roger reluctantly falls in love with Mimi, a stripper, only to discover that not only is she hooked on heroine, but she is dying of the same disease. Mark once dated Maureen, who left him for Joanne, a lawyer. The love triangle between these three play out in large part throughout the course of the tale. Then, of course, there is the tale of Collins and Angel who meet at the very beginning of the show when Collins is mugged and Angel, a cross-dressing drum player, nurses him back to health. Angel also has HIV.
Throughout the play, this group manages to bond over the fight to save their area from being gentrified, the fight against poverty and AIDS, and the struggle to find success in a world that seems like it’s against them. As they go on, they become their own family, united through life, through death, and everything in between. The tale is touching on its own—the music only makes it better.
Oh my God, the music. I am a musical buff by my very nature and the soundtrack for both the movie and the musical of this show blow me away. When Larson set out attempting to adapt Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, he said he wanted to make it into the next Hair, showcasing the music and the drama of the times while staying true to the themes of the opera. He pulled something through that was better than them both. More contemporary and way livelier than La Boheme (an opera which, by the way, made me sob like a baby when I saw it) and even more volatile (if that’s possible) than Hair, this rock opera takes us anywhere we can imagine going in the range of emotions.
We start from anger with the song Rent, in which the tenants complain about the promise Benny has revoked and their financial troubles. We transition to One Song Glory, a sad song, sung by the character of Roger, a songwriter fighting to write his masterpiece before AIDS claims him. This song is immediately eerie when you know about its writer death. Lyrics like, “One song before I go,” and “Time flies, time dies,” really make this song one of the emotional standouts. This is followed by a romantic song, Light My Candle, in which Mimi attempts to seduce Roger, which is followed by Today 4 U, a celebratory upbeat song sung by Angel. That’s a broad range of emotions to go through before the end of Act I, and it only gets better from there.
Other standout songs, include the poignant song Will I, about the fear of dying from AIDS, which is mainly composed of the following lines: “Will I lose my dignity/Will someone care/Will I wake tomorrow/From this nightmare.” Life Support, is the song that the show gets its tag line from: “No Day But Today.” La Vie Boheme, is a song about the beauty of Bohemian life, in which they have what could possibly be my favorite line from the entire show, “The opposite of war isn’t peace/It’s creation!” There is the insanely popular Seasons of Love, which anyone who saw a preview for the movie version of Rent should practically know by heart now.
Naturally, these are only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s an incredible iceberg. Every song is composed beautifully in a contemporary but offbeat format and each song resonates with impacting emotion. Both the soundtracks from the movie and the musical are great even if you are just listening. They are definitely worthy purchases in their own right.
I’m going to go in the order of what I’ve seen. For several years, I had planned to go to see Rent on Broadway—things kept getting in the way and before I knew it, years went by and we had seen other Broadway shows, and Rent had still been a no go. I had performed the most popular song in the show, Seasons of Love, for two different musical revues in the past and had fallen in love with the message it portrayed. So, when I saw the movie preview for Rent, in which that song was the main showcase, I realized that this movie was an absolute MUST SEE.
Assembling most of the original cast from the stage show, Rent assembles spectacular talent all around. Director Chris Columbus was known at the time for such movies as Home Alone and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, so people were skeptical about him working on a movie with such dramatic and emotional themes, but neither he nor Screenplay writer Stephen Chbosky seemed to have any trouble adapting the show to the big screen.
From the original cast of the Broadway show, Anthony Rapp stars as Mark, the filmmaker who stands in the darkness and watches life pass him by. His roommate Roger, is played by original cast member Adam Pascal, and their friend Collins is once again played by Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order). The role of ex-roommate and current landlord Benny is reprised by Taye Diggs (The Wood, Brown Sugar, Kevin Hill) and his real life wife Idina Menzel picks up the role of Maureen, Mark’s ex. Wilson Jermaine Hereida movingly returns to the role of Angel, Collins’ cross-dressing lover. New to the cast, but delivering knock down, drag out performances despite that fact are Tracie Thoms (Wonderfalls) as Maureen’s new girlfriend, Joanne and Rosario Dawson (Men in Black II, Sin City) as Mimi Marquez, Roger’s stripper girlfriend. And every single one of these people can sing and act their heads off. The acting in this movie captivates and you don’t even realize that time has past.
Now I must inject a word of caution for anyone who is a purist and loved the musical—there are parts that have been changed due to differences in scenery and location. This is a necessary evil in adapting a play into a movie. On a stage, it’s believable to be in a room in an apartment at the start of a song and then to be in a street surrounded by people without ever moving—in a movie, it is not, so things have to be changed. Some things have also been cut including songs from the Broadway production, but again, this is necessary for the flow of the story. An important thing to remember when viewing a movie is the differences between the medium of a stage show and the cinematic medium. I only say this because I heard many complaints about this and I felt it must be addressed.
Speaking of things I felt must be addressed, my review of this Broadway show comes with a little Rant. As my husband and I waited on line to be seated, the group next to us noticed a picture of the Original Cast on the side of the Nederlander Theatre, where the show has been performed ever since it moved to The Great White Way. The teenagers oohed and aahed over this and got all excited about the ones that had been in the movie. The father scolded them, telling them that the people in the movie were great and all, but they were not the people who slaved all day, training and doing show after show. I must admit, I wanted to smack him a little. The people shown in that picture WERE the original cast—they DID work on it doing show after show. Now, this wasn’t the end of the stupidity that comes when people talk without knowing what they are talking about. On the line to the women’s restrooms, after the show, complaints were abound about how much the play copied off of the movie. THE PLAY WAS WRITTEN FIRST!!! Grrr…
Anyway, on to the business of actually reviewing the show. Naturally, this was all performed on one tiny stage—tip to theater goers—don’t sit on the far aisle on either side if you want to see all the action. This stage is not big enough for stuff like that. Seeing this after the movie, I found that this was much more like an opera in that there wasn’t a great deal of spoken word and almost everything was sung. To me, this was great, but then, I’m an opera buff.
This particular version of the show contained Matt Caplan as a Mark who really seemed to live the part, although at times, his microphone got drowned out by Tim Howar (Roger) who had a much more powerful and louder voice. Howar played a different Roger than the one seen in the movie. He is much angrier and at times it got a little unnerving. There was a point where I thought he might tear Mimi’s head off! Mimi, played in this performance by understudy Karmine Alers, did a wonderful job in the role and was full of the spunk required for it. Mark Richard Ford (Collins) did a tremendous job and his voice during songs like Santa Fe and I’ll Cover You shined. D’Monroe is spectacular as the sleazy yet, somehow, loveable Benny, and Ava Gaudet is full of diva-like energy as Maureen. Justin Johnston wowed the crowd as Angel, especially during Today 4 U, where he modulated up and down from a high-pitched feminine voice to a low bass voice with the greatest of ease and comic timing. And Kenna J. Ramsey excelled as well, especially handling the multiple simultaneous phone calls in We’re Okay.
All in all, this show came together with an excellent power and personality all its own. Even the minor members of the cast generated amazing electricity when on the stage.
Well, it’s happened again. I can’t choose which is better. The movie is spectacular in its own right, but there is something to be said for the amazement of a live performance. Both are incredibly touching and have a great message. The characters are real and flawed and it’s easy to see that Jonathon Larson was a genius of our times.
Either way, Rent will have you laughing, crying, and cheering all at once at times. So here’s my suggestion. Go see the Musical. Purchase the movie. Hell, get both soundtracks. Become a Rent Head. I’m enjoying the hell out of it.