Monday, November 28, 2005

One Song Glory

I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard about "RENT," the musical. Sitting in my freshman year musical-theater appreciation class, one of my fellow students (Christopher Moses, a good guy, and a great singer) asked my Professor what he thought about the new "rock musical" on Broadway. While I enjoy musicals (and spent approximately four years of my life working in the theater professionally), I'm first-and-foremost a child of Rawk.

So, naturally, I went out, bought the cast recording, and promptly fell in love. Since then, I've seen the musical multiple times on Broadway, and watched one of my best friends assume the role of Roger on Broadway.

So it was with no small amount of excitement that my family and I hauled our turkey-bloated bodies to the movies this weekend to see the feature-film adaption of RENT. I left the movie theater elated, moved, and disappointed.

As a long-time resident of Alphabet City, the New York City neighborhood where RENT is set, it was a thrill to see some familiar, local haunts captured on camera. It was also bizarre to see my neighborhood recreated on soundstages and in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to have caught the original cast when they were on the stage, so it was a treat to see them given the opportunity to return to the roles they helped define. The music, produced by the man who produced Green Day's much-lauded American Idiot, was beefed up and made less tinny, more RAWK. Director Chris Colombus did an admirable job of taking a show that has existed on a stage and expanding its world outward into multiple settings.

So why was I disappointed?

In a word (or two), Jonathan Larson.

Larson was the creator/writer/composer of the show, and as any theater-geek worth their salt knows, he died just before his creation opened on Broadway. It's a sad story, yet its also typical of artists and their figurative children. And watching RENT, I kept thinking to myself, over and over, that Larson's memory was, in some ways, being seriously besmirched.

Because the RENT you'll see if you catch the movie is most definately not the RENT you'd see on Broadway. It's a different show. Vast sections of Larson's original musical score have been hacked out, rearranged, or altered, and Larson isn't with us to speak up and say that he approves or disapproves. While the majority of the major musical numbers remain intact, the incidental stuff is outta there. Somewhere along the movie production line, someone decided that audiences couldn't handle an actual rock-opera, so they've substituted awkward, stilted dialogue in place of Larson's lyrics and music. In at least one place, they've changed his lyrics to fit an altered time-line of events.

That's just wrong. RENT goes from being, for better or worse, a true opera on stage, to being a filmed collection of solid songs bookended by scenes of "acting" that break the flow of emotion and goodwill built up by the unfiltered emotional vulnerability and honesty that Larson's songs, and musical theater as a whole despite its many flaws, is so very good at creating. It seems disrespectful to Larson to have so significantly altered his work to suit the percieved appetites of the move-going public. It's a damn shame.

What was the thinking behind these changes? That audiences would not accept a full-blown musical? That thinking ignores the monumental success of the show as its existed for over ten years. Was it sheer creative hubris? Were the forces behind the film unwilling to make it unless they could contribute their own additions and substitutions?

Go see the movie if you haven't had an opportunity to see the show. For those of you in places were RENT on stage is simply unavailable to you, it will give you a taste of what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best musicals to have come out of New York in a very long time. But if you've a choice between spending your money on the movie, or on the experience of seeing it live, intact, and unchanged, then choose the stage. It's only there that you can get Larson's vision unfiltered by idiot studio execs and meddling creative types.

And most important of all, do not listen to the critics who tell you that the show is "dated." The issues at the heart of RENT - AIDS, the creation of family from friends, the omnipresent threat/promise of gentrification, the pain of living in an era that you don't understand, and that doesn't understand you - these themes are as relevant as ever. Critics seem to think that simply because the film is set before the millenium, that it is somehow less potent. But is any film about an earlier time in our country's history "dated" simply because it takes place in a time other than the one we're currently inhabiting?


At 12:34 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

Sorry to hear Rent wasn't up to its billing. Some others had those fears.

I can see how it might appear a little dated, though. I mean, the show did capture a certain essence from the time period that seems somewhat hard to recreate. True, friendship, timeless. But there's something about even watching the musical not but a year ago that made me feel like I was going back in time. Which isn't always bad.

It just feels like there's something Gen-X'y, no one gets me, pseudo-slackers that seems a little less relevant to our new Gen-Y's, I have twenty-five appointments, a cell phone, blackberry, and scanner-faxing from my cell phone, overworked present day teens.

But I'm hardly a ear to the ground social commentator.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

I don't know that I'll ever have teh opportunity to see this on stage so I'll give the movie a shot on video.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Jabawacefti said...

You should see it on stage if you can. It's a great show.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger codemorse said...

It should feel like you're going back in time, my friend. It's set in the past.

That doesn't mean its issues are dated. As someone who lived a life not all that different from the show's characters, I can personally attest to that. Your personal experiences may have been/may be different, but that doesn't mean that the lives on display in the film and on stage aren't accurate and truthful, if heavily romanticized.

AIDS is just as bad a problem as it was in the time RENT is set in. And the personal issues touched upon in the show - What do I want? What will I sacrifice? What's important? - are just as relevant now as they were to Puccini when he wrote La Boheme over a hundred years ago.

And I second the great show comment. It's good stuff. Cap, download "One Song Glory." You'll be glad you did.


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