Venue changes, love remains

The film version of “Rent’ brings familiar faces, thoughtful themes

Katrina Wilber

The theater is silent. Then we hear a piano ” the introduction to “Seasons of Love” ” an anthem both on and off Broadway.

But this is not a staged production of the beloved musical that shook up Broadway in the mid-1990s.

Ten years following its first theater production, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning musical “Rent” has come to the big screen in marvelous, soul-searching fashion.

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohe me,” “Rent” covers a year in the lives of a group of friends and lovers in New York who live a Bohemian life and struggle day-to-day to make ends meet. But despite their hopeful outlook on life, four of the eight main characters have HIV or AIDS.

Six of the eight original Broadway cast members return for the film, joining Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms.

Even with such well-known actors as Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin and Idina Menzel, it’s often difficult, if not downright impossible, to make a film of a musical. The elements of a live audience and live performances are no longer there.

But those who reprise their roles are magnificent, with Menzel’s impeccable comedic timing bringing some well-needed laughs. Dawson is phenomenal as Mimi, an exotic dancer with AIDS and a debilitating drug addiction.

Director Chris Columbus shows the side of New York City that nobody wants to show ” the side these characters call home.

The magnitude of their poverty is powerful: Two characters live in a barren apartment with broken windows and a duct-taped couch, and homeless people burn litter to stay warm in graffiti-filled alleys. These are the social outcasts, the forgotten, the scorned and the ridiculed.

The film is an eloquent and moving adaptation of Larson’s show because Columbus didn’t just plunk down a camera and read off the original script.?Many lines are spoken rather than sung this time, but most of Larson’s text is there.?

Because of this, “Rent” does not cater merely to those who like musicals. The songs are funny, poignant and tragic, but it becomes more of a movie with music than a musical. Think “Moulin Rouge,” rather than the rock-opera style of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The film updates and slightly alters the plotline, but all the original elements remain ” the fear, the hope, the loneliness, the struggles with homelessness, the deadly power of AIDS, the loss, the greed, the money (or lack thereof), the failure, the drug abuse and the infidelity.

And love is still there. Larson’s script and the actors’ voices ask us, plead with us to remember the power of love: to live every day of every year, all 525,600 minutes of it.

They beg us to measure our lives against many, many standards, but to measure our lives in love, above all else, and to never forget that there truly can be “no day but today.”