Time has not been kind to Rent. It hurts to say this because I was a Rent head, for about 15 minutes, back when I was younger and less demanding. I even camped out in front of the Nederlander Theatre for $20 rush tickets—several times. I’d been mesmerized by the characters, a mess of young artists, misfits, and outcasts falling in and out of love, trying to make it in the city without selling out. They were white, black, Latino, Asian, straight, queer, and in between, squatters, junkies, drag queens, strippers, squeegee men, and lawyers. It was unlike any musical I’d ever seen.
But the truth is that by the time Rent opened on Broadway almost a decade ago, it was already a period piece. Giuliani had made the squeegee men disappear, and he’d sent snipers and a tank into the East Village to clear out the squats. At the time, I’d thought the show survived with relevance and immediacy intact. In fact, the source material, Henri Murger’s serial Scénes de la Vie de Bohéme, was 150 years old. Puccini’s opera remains a cornerstone of the repertoire to this day (Leoncavallo’s version, not so much). For his 1990 Australian Opera production, Baz Luhrmann moved the story up to the 1950s (a post-Rent version had a brief Broadway run). With Rent, composer-writer-lyricist Jonathan Larson threw out all of Puccini except a few bars of Musetta’s waltz. He traded 19th-century Latin Quarter for modern-day Alphabet City, TB for HIV, and verismo for pop rock, reassigned some genders, then legendarily died of an aortic aneurysm, at age 35, hours after the final dress rehearsal.
Chris Columbus’s movie version, on the other hand, is not an update so much as a throwback. His East Village bears no resemblance to the neighborhood that’s now home to Kmart and Starbucks and shiny million-dollar condos (not to mention Voice World Corporate Headquarters), where rents have bubbled up out of reach for most bohemians—and probably several cast members. Stephen Chbosky’s screenplay sets the action in 1989 and 1990, re-created here with the excruciating period detail of a Merchant Ivory epic. Except for a digressive trip to New Mexico that I swear was a Bon Jovi video back in the ’80s, Columbus curatorially preserves many aspects of the original Broadway transfer, replicating bits of choreography, props, and costumes, often with unintended outcomes. (The iconic striped scarf Mark wears both onstage and on-screen doesn’t represent individualism anymore, now that the Gap sells it.) Instead of bringing a universal love story to the living present, the film traps it in a frozen past like a prehistoric bug in amber, as removed from moviegoers’ experience as a dusty diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. I was reminded of the unhip hippies in Milos Forman’s Hair, released 12 long years after the Summer of Love, at the height of the disco era. Rent is about as timely now as Gigi.
Many in the energetic original cast reprise their roles, with varying results. While I welcomed the familiar faces like old friends, it’s been a long decade—part of me wanted to yell at the screen, “You’re pushing 40! Get a job!” The most notable exception, Rosario Dawson, replaces Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, the world’s hottest heroin addict with AIDS. Anthony Rapp has grown into the role of the budding indie filmmaker Mark; he clearly benefits from the script’s stronger focus on his character as central observer and narrator. Idina Menzel and Wilson Jermaine Heredia still amaze, although she’s more shrill than I remember her onstage. Jesse L. Martin, late of Law & Order, has lost some of his voice and much of his fervor. The same could be said of Adam Pascal, whose impassioned Roger has cooled down to a tepid brooding. Maybe Columbus directed the stage actors to tone down their performances for the camera, or maybe it’s the age difference between the two leads (he’s nine years her senior), but the attraction between Roger and Mimi fails to ignite. These junkies have no chemistry.