“Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes
Five hundred, twenty-five thousand journeys to plan,
Five hundred, twenty- five thousand, six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?”
Based on the opera, La Boheme, and written by Jonathan Larson, RENT was the ninth-longest running Broadway show, when it closed after twelve years in 2008. During that time, it made stars, amassed a group of fans known as RENTheads, and was made into a film, starring Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascol, and Idina Menzel, all of whom played their respective characters (Mark Cohen, Roger Davis and Maureen Johnson) in the Original Broadway Cast.
However, this is not a review of the movie, but of the final Broadway performance, which was released on DVD in 2009, which I got for Christmas two years ago and has become my feel-good film.
That, in itself, sounds weird, when you take into account the plot.
RENT is a rock-opera rather than a musical, which basically means that all dialogue is sung, even if it is not part of the soundtrack, with the exception (I believe) of one or two conversations.
The actual set itself is remarkably unremarkable. There is no backdrop, no scenery, and their props consist of scaffolding, a few tables, and some chairs.
We are first of all introduced to Mark Cohen (Adam Kantor) and his room-mate, Roger Davis (Will Chase). Mark is an aspiring film-maker and, as the story opens on Christmas Eve, plans to film the next year of his life without bars, having just lost his girlfriend, Maureen (Eden Espinosa) to another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms).
[Trivia note: The actress who originally played Maureen, as mentioned above, was Idina Menzel who, among others, went on to play Elphaba in the musical Wicked. Eden Espinosa, after playing Maureen, went on to play Elphaba in Wicked.]
Roger, meanwhile, also lost his girlfriend recently, but in a much more tragic way. Mark informs us, quite matter-of-factly, “His girlfriend, April, left a note saying “We’ve got AIDS”, before slitting her wrists in the bathroom”. Living on borrowed time, the failed rock star is trying to write one last song to be his legacy.
Mark and Roger’s old room-mate Tom Collins (Michael McElroy), also living with AIDS, is back in town, and has just met fellow-sufferer, drag-queen street artist, Angel (Justin Johnston).
Roger is having trouble with the girl downstairs, Mimi (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who – you guessed it – is dealing with AIDS and a drug habit, and who might just be the person to drag Roger out of his self-induced funk and convince him to live again.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Coffin III (Rodney Hicks), an old friend of Mark, Roger and Collins, recently married into a wealthy family, has bought the building they live in.
Despite promising that they could live there rent-free, he’s decided to renovate, and has suddenly demanded the rent, with a year’s back-payments (hence the show’s title).
Hang on, I hear you cry, I thought you said this was ‘feel-good’. None of this sounds ‘feel-good’ to me.
And that’s exactly what I thought when I first watched it.
Anything that makes me cry within fifteen minutes is not going to leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling at the end of it.
But it did.
Because the illness, and the suffering, and, yes, the death, is only the background.
What RENT is truly about is friendship, and love, and leaving your mark on the world.
And even through, if I’m feeling really down, it can physically hurt trying to get through most of Act 2, by the time the cast reassembles for Seasons of Love at the end (arguably the most well-known song), I might have tears streaming down my face, but I’ve got a smile a mile-wide.
The only criticism I would have is that they decided not to cut the intermission, which is nice if you want the authentic feel, but do we really need to stare at an empty stage for forty minutes?
I think not.
“In truths that she learned, or the times that he cried,
In the bridges he burned, or the way that she died,
It’s time now to sing out, for the story never ends,
Let’s celebrate, remember a year in the life of friends.”
I’d give this 4 out of 5 (because of the intermission mentioned earlier).
Roxanne Williams (off to cry again)