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Rent works better on the stage.

Alphabet City

Most of the cast are reprising their original stage roles
Most of the cast are reprising their original stage roles

As a refresher course, remember that 1996 was the year Rent was paid up. For that year Rent won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as Tonys for Best Musical, Book, and Score. It was also the year in which the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm. That tragedy occurred the day before Rent’s Off-Broadway debut.

Rent is the convention-busting urban rock opera that rode a wave of hype by selling tickets in the first two rows of the orchestra, day of show, for a phenomenally low $20 a pop. Right out of the gate the show was all the buzz among the starving, Bohemian student set that was — and is — the show’s primary target audience.

Now, on the eve of the show’s 10th anniversary (it’s still kickin’ it on the Great White Way), Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter movies, has brought Rent to the silver screen.

A-B-C Easy as 1-2-3

Rent tells the angst-filled tale of Gen-Xers looking for love and liberty in the Big Apple at the end of the 20th century.

Among the ensemble cast, most of whom are reprising their original stage roles, are Mark (Anthony Rapp), the struggling filmmaker; Roger (Adam Pascal), the struggling songwriter; and Benny (Taye Diggs) the landlord who’s struggling to collect the rent for the massively oversized (roomy enough for loads of song and dance) Manhattan loft shared by the struggling artists.

Mark and Roger face eviction so Benny can build a brand-spanking new studio. It would be the kind of place, Benny promises, where Mark and Roger could make movies – and get paid. But, at least in this case, a Bohemian is nothing if not principle-bound and these two kids won’t cave in to the ploys of corporate America unless they absolutely, positively have to.

Eventually, Mark’s logic is that it’s better to work for a trashy tabloid TV show and pay the rent than sign a rent-free lease with Benny after he decides to take his studio project elsewhere. Go figure.

Fashioned as a modern spin on Puccini’s La Boheme, Rent most definitely found its audience via Broadway and its touring productions. But its tale of AIDS, poverty, and following one’s bliss is hard to embrace in this cinematic incarnation.

Avenue A

There’s a trick to bridging the gap from stage to screen and, considering the current rash of contemporary mega-musicals transferring to the cinema, some are bound to succeed and others fail.

On the side of success, Rob Marshall vaulted the chasm between stage and screen with Chicago. In that case, the film version set up a clever angle on the song and dance – it was all a part of Roxie Hart’s vivid imagination.

With The Phantom of the Opera, Joel Schumacher had the benefit of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s auspices. Together, they stayed true to the original production while also adding some new material that opened up the extravaganza and restored some ideas that could not be executed on stage.

In Rent, the biggest hook is that most of the original cast is in the movie. The two big exceptions are Rosario Dawson, filling in for Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi, and Tracie Thoms, taking over the character of Joanne for Fredi Walker.

Sure, this cinematic version also takes advantage of the obvious, offering some exterior, on-location shots that help give the characters a sense of time and place, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s in-your-face presentation and an overly amped soundtrack courtesy of the engineers at Skywalker Sound.

“L” Is for “LIVE”

Given the show’s overall lack of “hummability” — like most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows there are only a couple really good songs to be had here — Rent is the type of show that lives and dies by the exuberance of the performances.

On stage, there was a sense of immediacy, an urgent feeling of passion, borne by the vitality of the actors’ live performances. While the actors exude energy in this film version, it’s not contagious and the end result is an uninvolving, overly faithful translation.

Emerging as the star of this movie is Idina Menzel, who recently took Broadway by storm in the phenomenally successful Wicked. Menzel’s role of Maureen, Mark’s ex, benefits from the live performance factor. As events unfold, Maureen performs Over the Moon in a mini-protest concert in front of a crowd of spectators.

That’s when the movie kicks in with a sense of energy and innovation reminiscent of the stage show. It’s a unique scene that generates a great feeling of movie fun. Similarly, the ensemble piece La Vie Boheme gains energy from its café setting and the crowd surrounding the scene.

The F Train

Unfortunately the giddiness and energy of those sequences are not maintained throughout the film and Rent mostly feels like an overly (very overly) long music video that offers almost as much fun as watching Time Warp from Rocky Horror for 2 1/4 hours straight.

And although the message of following your bliss, going out there and living your life, writing your song, and making your movie is a constant source of inspiration for multitudes, in this case the movie trips up with Mark’s film-within-a-film.

Mark’s big pet project, what is trumpeted as his life’s ambition, turns out to be nothing more than a collage of 16mm footage from his wandering the streets of New York and hanging out with his friends. Gee, it even fits so well as a backdrop for the soaring rock music accompaniment.

What he would intend to do with that movie and where he would show it aside from his own (palatial loft) living room remains a mystery. It would’ve been much better to leave Mark’s movie to our imaginations, perhaps showing his friends watching the movie from behind the screen, in awe of his meisterwerk.

At the end of this century, people will no doubt still be pursuing their dreams, writing their songs, and making their movies. Equally certain, Broadway will still be the source of big, gregarious musicals that will continue to make the transition from stage to screen and newly-minted fans will still be watching West Side Story (on stage and on screen). But it’s unlikely they’ll still be renting Rent.