When it comes to American entertainment, theater fans are something like second-class citizens. The American theater continues scrappily to endure, but out on the shores of the cultural mainstream. So when PBS or some other enterprising producer convinces Broadway producers that it might be a winning proposition to film a show for distribution in theaters, TV or home video, it's a victory not only for theater enthusiasts in the "flyover states," but for theatrical posterity. Unfortunately, the numbers don't usually crunch in the favor of such an enterprise, but support for projects like RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway may spell opportunities for less commerically obvious stage-to-screen ventures.
The musical RENT—written and composed by Jonathan Larson—took on a legendary mystique when its 35-year-old author died suddenly the night before his play's first off-Broadway preview. Within a few months, the show moved to Broadway, where it stayed a startling twelve years. In anticipation of its closing, the show's producers assembled a special "closing cast" including fresh new talent, actors from various Broadway and touring companies over the years and, from the premiere 1996 cast at New York Theatre Workshop, Rodney Hicks (Benny) and Gwen Stewart (Mrs. Jefferson, Woman with Bags, et al). Specially filmed in the final days, this version of RENT may not be definitive, but it certainly has sentimental value and, unlike Chris Columbus' 2005 film version, presents the unexpurgated play as it has always been performed on stage. The one exception: a stirring curtain-call reunion of yet more vintage RENT performers (including original cast members Anthony Rapp and Jesse L. Martin).
As loosely based on Puccini's opera La Bohème, Rent has always suffered from its clunky story of young, supposedly avant-garde New York artists who expect free rent from a buddy in real estate. Their lives are further complicated by AIDS—three of the characters are HIV-positive. The story's central loft houses Mark Cohen (Adam Kantor), a quick-witted filmmaker, and Roger Davis (Will Chase), an aspiring singer-songwriter. Mark remains rankled by his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Eden Espinosa), who recently took up with a woman: a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms, who also played the role in the Columbus film); likewise, Roger has yet to move on from the suicide of his girlfriend. The men's downstairs neighbor Mimi (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a stripper with a secret, has designs on the emotionally unavailable Roger.
The once-friendly Benny (Hicks) married the daughter of Mark and Roger's landlord—now he's under pressure to root out the deadbeat riffraff from the family's downtown real-estate holdings. Meanwhile, unexpected bliss comes to two men in the social circle: hip philosophy professor Tom Collins (Michael McElroy) and his new lover, a street-performing drag queen-drummer named Angel (Justin Johnston).
Larson's power-rock music and lyrics are affecting, even in their self-conscious vocal gymnastics. Larson's specialty is the longing plaint of hope for a more fulfilling life to come. In an agnostic plea, Roger begs of his muse, "One song/To redeem this empty life." In the show's most well-known numbers, the ensemble harmonizes on the central "carpe diem" theme. "Seasons of Love" accounts for the "525,600 minutes" of the story, which Columbus places between Christmas Eve of '89 to Christmas Eve of '90 ("how do you measure, measure a year?"). "Another Day" makes the theme yet more explicit: "No day but today."
It's tempting to look at RENT as carrying a message so deeply felt that its author died to prove it, but deifying Larson would be a mistake. There's a case to be made that "Santa Fe" is a rip-off of the song "Santa Fe" from the 1992 movie musical Newsies; both songs moonily exalt Santa Fe as an escape from urban squalor. Larson's values spread thinly across his characters while naively addressing the conflict of prolonged adolescence and responsible adulthood—why, exactly, is Benny such a jerk for insisting the artists pay for their lodgings? Perhaps sensing his pending overnight success, Larson also equivocates on the subject of art versus commerce.
In "La Vie Bohème," Mark toasts, "To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension." RENT has arguably become the big-budget, commodified sell-out that Mark fears making (then again, by the evidence of Mark's filmmaking, his talent qualifies him only to make Coke commercials). Top cinematographer Declan Quinn (Pride and Glory, Rachel Getting Married) does a fine job of capturing the show; if only cameras had been present at the start, rather than the finish. It seems to me the true spirit of RENT still lives in a raw production gutted out in a tiny theater; nevertheless, Larson's musical and philosophical themes will always have power.
Sony deserves applause for this astounding special edition of RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway. I'm betting Broadway audiences would pay handsomely for more discs like this one that preserve the show itself while also putting effort into illuminating behind-the-scenes bonus features; let's hope this is only the beginning. Since the show was filmed with HD cameras and professional mixed, the Blu-ray's A/V transfer is particularly exceptional. The picture quality and Dolby TrueHD audio are razor-sharp, and most of the bonus features are also presented in HD.
"RENT: The Final Days on Broadway" (36:56, HD) is an emotional powerhouse exploring in detail what cast and crew experience while packing in the twelve-year run of RENT. Participants include Rodney Hicks; Gwen Stewart; Jonathan Larson's parents Allan and Nanette Larson; producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, and Adam S. Gordon; production stage manager John Vivian; director Michael Greif; Will Chase; Tracie Thoms; Jay Wilkison; Eden Espinosa; Adam Kantor; Justin Johnston; Renée Elise Goldsberry; wig, hair and make-up designer David Santana; Anthony Rapp; Jesse L. Martin; Jai Rodriguez; Jaime Lee Kirchner; Luther Creek; music director David Truskinoff; Michael McElroy; stage manager Crystal Huntington; Marcus Paul James; Andrea Goss; and Tracy McDowell.
"The Final Curtain Call" (8:11, HD) looks backstage, as former cast members wait to enter, and onstage after they do in an extended version of the closing night curtain call.
"Home" (6:51, HD) is a heartwarming look at the David Nederlander Theatre, where RENT has lived for well over a decade. Chase, Espinosa, Seller, Vivian, McCollum, Goldsberry, and Johnston contribute their thoughts.
"The Wall" (6:00, HD) takes an even closer look at the Nederlander and a tradition by which fans scrawl their thoughts on the theater itself. Interviewees include McCollum, Seller, and Gordon.
"Casting" (7:50, HD) explains how various productions of RENT, including the "closing cast," have been assembled over the years, with casting director Bernard Telsey, Greif, McCollum, Gordon, Thoms, Johnston, Espinosa, Seller, McElroy, Stewart, and Hicks.
"The Final Lottery" (9:02, HD) is a cool featurette presenting the final night's lottery for cheap front-row seats, an enterprise dedicated to keeping Broadway affordable. Telly Leung, Seller, McCollum, Gordon, and lottery master Sonny Curry talk to the camera.
Last up are a "National Marfan Foundation PSA" (1:02, SD) with Anthony Rapp explaining the disorder thought to have killed Larson, and "Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation PSA" (5:53, SD), which profiles Larson and the foundation named for him with Stephen Schwartz, Jonathan's sister Julie Larson and mother Nan Larson, and executive director Nancy Kassak Diekmann.
If you love theater, vote with your dollars by picking up RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway; maybe we'll see more cool special editions like this one.
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