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Rent, the Musical

by Philip Chien

Rent - the musical One of the most popular Broadway musicals is "Rent", the story of an independent filmmaker in New York, his gay friends and their experiences going through the AIDS crisis. It's an unlikely formula for success but turned into one of the most popular Broadway shows and a hit movie.

The musical has a fanatical following, "Rentheads", who go back to watch it again and again. The story is an update of the opera "La Boheme" by Puccini, revised to the 20th century.

You don't have to go to Broadway to see "Rent" in person though; there's a national show.

The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. hosted "Rent" on April 11 and 12, 2008. The Kravis Center is an amazing live theater in West Palm Beach Florida, reminiscent of the big Broadway theaters in their prime. It's featured major concerts, plays, and other special events. One feature I found especially appealing is the attached parking lot - free, adequate spaces, and excellent parking attendants before and after the show to get everybody in and out as efficiently as possible.

This reviewer attended the April 11th performance and it was incredible. If you're familiar with the movie version you'll recognize the pieces on the set. Naturally it's a live play so you can't have as much detail and locations as a movie. The play is split into two acts with an intermission and during the intermission the stagehands reset some of the pieces. The four-person orchestra is on a corner of the stage.

One of the many national tours of Rent. The cast for this performance featured two contestants from "American Idol", Anwar Robinson (Tom Collins) from Season 4, and Heinz Winckler (Roger) from the South African version.

In this reviewer's opinion the best performances were by Angel (Kristen-Alexander Griffith) and Mimi (Jennifer Colby Talton), but of course those are the two most challenging roles.

One objection to the configuration in the Kravis Center is the door at the back of the stage. Whenever it was opened the spotlights behind cast a glare on the right side of the auditorium. It isn't possible for the show to be custom designed for each theater but something that is that distracting should have been addressed.

"Rent" has had an amazing history, most memorable being the untimely death of creator Jonathan Larson. The final dress rehearsal for the off-Broadway run was held on January 25, 1996. Larson died that night from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm at just 35 years old.

"Rent"'s Broadway opening was the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996. It was an immediate hit with critics and fans, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tony Awards. Certainly it must be recognized that the death of Jonathan Larson may have contributed to sympathy votes but there's no doubt that "Rent" is a Broadway classic.

One of the reasons "Rent" gained such a cult following is the decision by the managers to offer 20 of the best seats for each performance for the rock bottom price of just $20. In an era where prime seats for Broadway shows go for at least $100 and often much more it's become too expensive for the average person to see a major show. The decision to offer the discount seats, sold on the day of the performance, was a desire to make Broadway accessible to the general public. It had the side benefit of garnering excellent publicity. Fans would line up for hours, and in some cases days in advance for those discounted seats. Many of the show's most ardent fans would spend so much time in line that they'd make friendships with others waiting for those tickets. Several other Broadway shows have noticed the benefits of the additional publicity and have started offering a limited number of discount day-of-show seats. Most venues on the national tours also offer these discounted seats, either on a first-come first-served basis or lottery.

The 2005 movie helped introduce millions to the story and many fans of the movie have become devoted fans of the original stage version. One particular challenge for the moviemakers was to keep the movie in its 1989 setting while filming in present day New York. Director Christopher Columbus noted that now there's a "Starbucks" on every corner while in 1989, when the musical takes place, the city had a slightly different feel. Naturally there are anachronisms, in the movie you can see cars in the background which didn't exist in 1989, and in both the play and movie one of the songs references "Thelma and Louise" which didn't come out until 1991!

The movie was only possible because of the success of "Moulin Rouge"; showing backers that the public was interested in non-animated movie musicals. Overall "Rent" the movie is a faithful version of the stage play. The language was toned down to get a PG-13 rating, but it is still filled with the original sex and drugs content.

Many of the members of the original Broadway cast reprised their roles on the silver screen. Jesse L. Martin played "Collins" in the Broadway cast and went on to greater fame as Detective Ed Green on "Law and Order". To get the time off to film the movie version a storyline was written on "Law and Order" where his character was shot and recuperating off camera.

Other members of the original Broadway cast include Taye Diggs (Benny), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Adam Pascal (Roger), and Anthony Rapp (Mark). But time is a limiting factor for the career of almost every dancer and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi) and Fredi Walker (Joanne), bowed out of the movie. They were succeeded by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms. In contrast Wilson Jermaine Heredia was still a talented enough dancer to still do all of his amazing performances in the movie without a stunt double, nine years after he first stared as Angel on Broadway.

Costume designer Aggie Rodgers recalled that she didn't have to do any special tricks to keep Mimi's costumes looking the same from scene to scene. She said, "Rosario [Dawson] is a very careful actress, she doesn't do anything that would endanger anything. She really is smart and knows exactly what the shot's going to be."

The movie version barely broke even, but the DVD is extremely popular with Rentheads.

After twelve years "Rent" is ending its Broadway run, with the final performance scheduled for September 7, 2008. With over 5,000 performances it's the seventh longest run for any Broadway musical. But there's little doubt the "Rent" phenomena will continue.


The official site for the Broadway and touring shows.
Buy the movie on DVD from Amazon.
Buy the CD of the original Broadway cast recording from Amazon.
The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
The online blog for the movie version of "Rent."

About the author

Philip Chien has been a fan of musicals since he saw his first Broadway play, at age 10.

copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved.