RENT: From Stage to Screen

Chris Columbus’ 2002 film Rent translates the 1996 rock opera into cinematic language. The optimism and hope, combined with harsh social commentary, seething rock ballads and stirring human stories that is Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a challenge to modify for the screen. Using the original Broadway cast (plus a few new voices) and the visual backdrop of NYC instead of the community of artists, addicts, vendors, and homeless in the stage production, Columbus brings Rent into the new millennium. The stage play loses its edge on film without the focus on community, and a darkness that critiques the social injustices perpetrated on the homeless and the gay community. The film gains greater specificity by grounding the fantasy of the musical in the reality of New York City. We see the city in long shots, songs take place on the roof, the subway, and the streets of NYC. The essence of the show remains the same: finding hope and optimism in the harsh landscape of New York where love and living for the moment ultimately triumph over death.

The original cast members: Adam Pascal (Roger), Anthony Rapp (Mark), Jesse L. Martin (Collins), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Taye Diggs (Benny), and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel) return for the film to play the characters they created in 1996 at the New York Theater Workshop. While the director, Chris Columbus, considered making the film with new young people/upcoming rock stars he ultimately decided the only way to make it work was with the original cast. He said that original cast members “were” these characters. In 1996 these actors were relative newcomers, with more or less theater experience, (Adam Pascal was the only raw talent) and as such none of them brought a pre-existing star persona to the stage. They were able to take on the characters, both defining and being defined by them. Using the original cast members in the film lends it authenticity because Rent is synonymous with these actors. They are recreating roles from their past, tapping into the energy and emotions that Rent evoked in them, bringing a sense of nostalgia to their roles and a joy in returning to them that a newcomer would not have. At the same time Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracy Thoms as Joanne bring a freshness and youth to the film that may have been lacking if all of the original cast returned. Rosario Dawson is less gritty and her voice less raw and raspy than Daphne Rubin-Vega and she brings a greater vulnerability and sweetness to the character underneath her tough, sassy veneer. Ultimately the combination of the old and new actors give the film a timelessness that the stage can never have, focusing on the universal themes of love, optimism, and living for today, while losing some of the specificity of the social issues depicted on stage.

The 1996 show was written and composed by Jonathan Larson in reaction to social problems in New York at the time, which form the backdrop to his adaptation of “La Bohème,” also determining the course of the plot. Billy Aronson, who developed the original concept said of the show:

When I first lived in New York I was in Hell’s Kitchen. I was struck by the sort of grisly strange scary world of being an artist in the 1980’s in New York. Where we were becoming more and more aware of the spread of AIDS and homelessness was skyrocketing. Where there were people who were so wealthy, stepping over people who were dying of disease on the street. So I got this idea that I wanted to take the basic story of Bohème, but setting it now where it’s not as glorious, its not as luscious. Finding beauty there, but in a different way.

Taking the New York scene and applying it to the Bohème story created the plot and characters of Rent. Marcello the painter becomes Mark the filmmaker, who isolates himself behind the camera while longing for a sense of community. Rodolfo the poet, becomes Roger the musician, diagnosed with HIV and recovering from a heroin addiction. He falls in love with Mimi, transformed from courtesan with consumption to a stripper with a heroin addiction and HIV.  The plot then hinges on the battle between gentrification and the homeless. Benny the wealthy representative of  “the twin specters of gentrification and generational sell-out” owns the building and wants to turn it and the lot next door into a recording/film studio, with condos on the top, and throw out the homeless in the process. It was originally set on the Upper West Side but Jonathan discovered more interesting issues on Lower East Side:

New York was a different New York then, it was grittier you didn’t go to Avenue C without watching your back. Really scary and desolate, and there were like shady drug people hanging out in doorways, the edgier gay and lesbian community, the funky, punk influence kind of community, young artists, young students were starting to move in, the post collegiate dormitory scene with style.

The Lower East Side culture of the 80’s is evident in both the film and stage version, though on stage it is contemporary and relevant while in the film it is communicated as a nostalgia for the bohemian Lower East Side, that has succumbed to gentrification, being taken over by yuppies and trendy restaurants and shops.

This view of bohemia was daring in 1996, bringing to light the AIDS epidemic and giving its victims a voice, putting us on the side of the homeless against the zero tolerance policy and the police who enforce it. There were many burnt out abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side, and because of the economy it seemed like a good idea to be a squatter – live illegally in a building that would otherwise be uninhabited. People slept in Tompkins Square Park (where “I’ll Cover You,” Angel and Collins’ love song takes place in the film), because there was nowhere to live. Landlords were furious with the squatters and the homeless in the park. They wanted people to pay rent. These people are represented in Rent through Benny and his “investors” (aka his father-in-law) who want to clear out the homeless from the lot on Christmas Eve, but “you can’t quietly wipe out an entire tent city then watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on TV.” It became increasingly uncomfortable for the authorities to have poor folks around like that so they brought the police in to get them out, beginning a policy of zero tolerance of poor/homeless people in America. The police were like an army, it took days, there were fires/flares, cheering for poor people, cheering against, big brother, it was like watching a war. Rent is a dramatization of what happened little by little: people started to buy property on the Lower East Side, and turn it into cool fabulous bohemian style places (for a price) – gentrification. Jonathan wanted to address this social issue with Rent: the haves vs. the have-nots.

As La Bohème was about a plague, Rent is about the plague of AIDS. People were dying of it in a very short amount of time. Doctors told people they had two years at most. There was a sense that you did something bad to get AIDS; had sex with something or shot something up, so there was discrimination around it, hostility towards it, and an ignorance about it. Regan heard about disease when 10,000 people in this country had it, by the time he said the word over 100,000 people were dying of this sexually transmitted disease and no one seemed to care. People were afraid to talk about it, and since there was no one to help, you talked to your friends. Jonathan (though not gay and HIV positive as many people believe) was connected to the gay community. His high school best friend was gay and HIV positive. His friend said in “No Day But Today: The Story of Rent” that you think you’re going to be dead in two years, and that he was told by the doctor to get his affairs in order. AIDS was not just a headline; people you knew were dying. The characters in Rent that we see in the Life Support meetings are real friends of Jonathan’s that died of AIDS: Ali Gertz 1966-1992 diagnosed in 1988, Gordon Rogers 1963-1995 diagnosed a few months later, Pam Shaw 1963-1995. The disease did not discriminate, people you wouldn’t expect to have it, got it and died young. Jonathan went to Friends in Deed, a support group for people with AIDS and the basis for life support meetings, with his friend Matt, and ended up volunteering. It was a place to go be themselves, talk about the disease without feeling ashamed/being treated like something dirty, it offered understanding and love, and a nonjudgmental environment of support. These meetings served as inspiration in a greater sense, as someone in a meeting once said “I’m not really afraid of dying and I think I can handle suffering, but the thing I think about all the time is will I lose my dignity?” Jonathan wrote Rent to try to save people by bringing attention to this disease and to return their dignity.

The harshness of Larson’s social critique is softened in the film as Chris Columbus focuses more on the optimism and hope of the show, losing the darker edge and some of the humor that kept it from being overly sentimental and melodramatic. Explicit references to sex are removed (leaving only more acceptable innuendo), as well as April’s suicide (only referenced obliquely in the film). Benny and Mimi’s affair is diluted and the sex song “Contact” is removed (it was never even filmed unlike “Goodbye Love” and “Halloween”). Mimi’s strip tease becomes more explicit, but also exploitative as we see Mimi open her legs to the audience in the club and grab her crotch. Like the girls in Busby Berkley films she appears to enjoy it, until her drug addiction drags her down. Mimi’s reawakening in the finale is more self-aware onstage while in the film it slides into melodrama, and Roger’s song is too sickly sweet to take. Jonathan’s balance of darkness and hope in the play gets lost in the film, perhaps contributing to its failure in the box office.

To me “Rent” is a triumph of theater…Onstage the death of Angel, the endearing drag queen, is depicted abstractly with billowing sheets and a circle of bereft friends. In the film the scene is made literal, set in an intensive care unit. The filmed “Rent” seems a safer show than Mr. Larson may have intended.

The combination of sex and death onstage with the song “Contact” not only is more daring than showing Angel growing paler in an intensive care unit, but it reflects the complexities of AIDS, and the inherent connection between the passion they are singing about and the disease that kills Angel. It reflects a world where sex is never safe and the risk of expressing love is no longer just a broken heart. The song’s lyrics were shockingly straightforward for a Broadway show, “harder, faster, wetter, bastard, you whore, you cannibal, more, you animal” culminating in Angel’s death and ending in the “bad sex” that is almost never talked about in popular culture, “wait, slipped, shit, I think I missed, don’t get pissed. It was bad for me, was it bad for you? It’s over.” The words of Angel’s solo reflect this complexity even further by implicating the audience, “Today me tomorrow you” reminding us that this can in fact happen to anyone, and his last words in the show are “take me I love you.” Furthermore, it presents homosexual sex (as well as heterosexual) boldly in song, not as something that must be hidden in shame, but as something to be celebrated.

Mimi’s sexuality is placed in the more filmicly acceptable realm of exploitation. The crotch shot and the opening of her legs to the audience replaces the display of skill and athleticism we see onstage as she dances on her balcony and into Roger’s apartment. In the film instead, she is an object of male consumption and voyeurism, and enjoying it. She slinks down the street with bouncy enthusiasm, singing the same song from the strip club to seduce Roger, making her stripping seem all fun and games, in contrast with her quip that “it’s a living” to Roger in “Light My Candle.” In the play there is also more comedy to it, when she tells Roger that she works at the Cat Scratch Club he says “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs” and imitates her dance. The scene with Benny after New Years is also stripped of sexual meaning. In the play he implies that she slept with him to change his mind, which she vehemently denies. “Mimi since your ways are so seductive, persuade them not to be so counterproductive, why not tell ‘em what you wore to my place? Black leather and lace, my desk was a mess I think I’m still sore.” Mimi asserts that, “I kicked him and told him I wasn’t his whore” but Roger doesn’t believe her. The film removes the complexities of Mimi’s character making her just a woman to be exploited.

Though we see more of April and Roger’s relationship in the film through the flashbacks in “One Song Glory” the stark reality of her suicide is removed, which is very matter of fact and in your face in the show. Mark sings, “Close on Roger, his girlfriend April left a note saying we’ve got AIDS, before slitting her wrists in the bathroom.” Instead in the film you are left to think she died of AIDS. This is partially because at the time of the show AIDS was a death sentence, while today it is more manageable.

Mimi’s near death episode at the end of the film falls into melodrama, while in the show it is more comic. Her survival in the film merely takes on the impossibility allowed in musicals, and is thoroughly sentimental. In the show, on the other hand, some distance is placed between us and the spectacle by her line: “I jumped over the moon…a leap of mooooo” allowing us to realize the impossibility of her survival while still allowing us to enjoy it and celebrate it. We know as an audience in both the film and the show that in real life Mimi would die. In not acknowledging the ridiculousness of it, the sentimentality takes over and we feel that it is a typical Hollywood happy ending, a deus ex macchina, saving the character when she obviously should die. On the other hand, Jonathan saves Mimi to give the audience the happy ending we all want yet know isn’t real. In the play we are placed on the inside with the composer and the actors and it is clear that we are being given this ending because we want it. By acknowledging its impossibility he allows us to enjoy it and triumph in it.

The film appears to be tamed by the cultural expectations of American audiences, which the show defied. Instead of a challenge it becomes a feel good film with some social commentary on acceptable issues like gay marriage and drug addiction. Sex is replaced with violence (the riot). Supporting gay marriage and showing the ills of drug addiction is politically correct while depictions of suicide or gay sex are still deviant and swept under the table: we can allude to it on film but not show it. Chris Columbus takes the safe route, immortalizing the hope and optimism and celebrating the play and Jonathan’s work without taking on the social and cultural implications of it. It would be much more difficult and controversial to attempt to update the show, especially because of Jonathan’s death, making it more socially relevant to today’s audiences, and pushing the envelope as it did originally onstage.

In the spirit of capturing the truth at the heart of Rent, Chris Columbus shifts the focus from the social issues of the community to the individual human stories, which remain relevant and relatable. He focuses more on the three couples rather than Mark, who is pushed somewhat to the side in the film. Onstage he is our guide and narrator through the show, presenting the characters and situations with humor, reveling his own isolation and loneliness in the process. The film uses the point of view of his camera as part of the visual structure, but loses some of his voice. His solo “Halloween” reflecting on his own position as witness to all these events and his loneliness and separation was shot but cut out of the film. His argument with Roger at the end of “Goodbye Love” is removed as well, and the stark truths they throw at each other: “Mark hides in his work, from facing your failure, facing your loneliness, facing the fact you live a lie. Yes you live a lie, tell you why, you’re always preaching not to be numb when that’s how you thrive. You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from feeling alive.” The fact that Roger is running away because he’s afraid to watch Mimi die is also lost in the film with the removal of this song, taking the meaning out of his flight to Santa Fe.

The community that surrounds these individual stories is essentially lost in the film with the removal of most of the ensemble numbers aside from “Rent.” Even the way the stories of the individual characters weave together in the existing songs is reduced. Only the main characters in the film sing, the voice of the community is largely removed, boiled down to a few instances of dialogue, such as the interaction with the police and the homeless woman. The squeegee man does not chant “honest living,” the chorus of the homeless reminding us that there is no Christmas for them, is gone replaced by a documentary aesthetic that distances us from their plight. Without this larger scope of community Maureen’s protest is rendered meaningless and seems more selfish than politically active. Roger’s comment that “you’ve got plenty of customers” loses its punch when not backed by a chorus of drug addicts singing “I’m illing, I’ve gotta get my sickness off, gotta run gotta ride, gotta gun gotta hide gotta go!” In the song “Christmas Bells” New York is given a voice that is cacophonous, overlapping, and confused, but authentic. In it Jonathan critiques the consumerist culture through the vendors selling “hats, bats, shoes, booze, mountain bikes, potpourri, leather bags, girlie mags, forty-fives, AZT” not to mention Collins’ stolen coat. The police are also criticized for racism with their lyric: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, Just like the ones I used to know, Jingle bells prison cells,
Fa la la la fa la la la,
You have the right to remain, Silent night holy night, Fall on your knees oh night divine, You’ll do some time,
Fa la la la la
Fa la la la la.” Finally, the idea of the seven main characters as a family is not fully expressed in the film. Onstage they struggle for unity with Angel as the constant advocate of love and unity, but on film that sense of community is broken up by the framing of characters in two shots, rather than as a group.

Columbus replaces this community with real locations in New York City. Roger and Mark’s building and block was shot on a back lot in LA, built to look like 1980’s New York, creating a backdrop of nostalgia for the group. He wanted to make sure there was a reality about it, that the clothing was authentic, and that people looked real. The rest was shot on location in NYC. Angel and Collins walk through Tompkins Square Park singing “I’ll Cover You,” and Mimi goes there to buy drugs. “Santa Fe” takes place on the F train with Collins and Angel dancing through the  poles, lamenting life in New York and dreaming of a new life in Santa Fe, though as Roger says in the end “you’d miss New York before you could unpack.” The film starts with documentary style shots of New York with Mark’s monologue over it, and transitions to him riding his bike through New York streets. Joanne, Mark, and Maureen go to Wall Street in the second half of the film, symbolizing Mark’s “selling out.” Roger sings “One Song Glory” on the roof and he and Mark reunite in “What You Own” on the roof as well. Columbus emphasizes the city location with extreme wide shots, revealing the scope of the city from the rooftop. His long sweeping camera motions stylize the film, and his beautiful use of foregrounding a character whose emotions are revealed to us, in tension with a character in the background, heighten the conflict. He uses many continuous takes (as in Fred Astaire films) to allow the musical numbers their full scope without distracting cuts. The most beautiful sequence in the film is the “Tango: Maureen” which starts in the performance space than transitions into Mark’s headspace while he is unconscious. The room is filled with black clad dancers doing the tango, with only Maureen in red. She does a three-way tango with Joanne and Mark before leaving them for another man and woman. Joanne in this scene alludes to Fred and Ginger, Mark says “it’s hard to do this backwards,” and Joanne responds “you should try it in heels.” The set of Maureen’s performance space is a homage to the original set of Rent: Paul Clay’s original grungy, deliberately makeshift-looking set, with its white paper lantern of a moon.

Chris Columbus’ film immortalizes the spirit of Rent and its creator Jonathan Larson, leaving behind some of its edge and criticism, opting instead to capture its optimism and hope. He creates a sense of nostalgia for an imagined bohemian past with the original cast and the back lot set, built to look like 1980’s New York. Yet he succeeds in visualizing the imagined world of Rent, celebrating its characters and its music. It is difficult to be anything other than faithful to the work of this composer, who died at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of his success. The play has remained largely unchanged, paying tribute to Jonathan, and the film serves to do the same. In the end, the only words left (like at the New York Theater Workshop on the night Rent opened) are: “thank you Jonathan Larson.”


[No Day But Today: The Story of ‘Rent’]

[Another Season of Love: The Original Cast Reassembles for a ‘Rent’ Anniversary]

[A.O. Scott, “New Tenants in Tinseltown]

[Enter Singing: Young, Hopeful and Taking on the Big Time]

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