Sunday, December 04, 2005


I saw a review of "Rent" recently that bemoaned the fact that Chris Columbus was too respectful of the source material, and wondered why he didn't take a page out of Bob Fosse's handbook. When Fosse filmed "Cabaret", you will recall, he ditched all of the non-diegetic numbers; that is, he only kept the songs that were written to be performed on the stage of the Kit Kat Klub (all of Sally's and the Emcee's numbers) with the exception of the too-good-to-pass-up "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", which he staged as a song known to all of the Volk. In doing so, Fosse eliminated one of the eternal criticisms of the musical: the lack of realism.

But "Cabaret" was always a Frankensteinian creation, half traditional musical (all the songs cut by Fosse) and half concept musical (what he kept). Duplicating that would mean finding another piece as brilliantly misshapen.

2002's Oscar-winner "Chicago" handled the supposed realism problem in much the same way that Fosse did back in 1980 with "All That Jazz": by making it clear that the musical numbers are actually the mental fantasies of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger in "Chicago") or Bob Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon (Roy Schieder in "All That Jazz").

For a brief moment at the beginning of "Rent", I thought Columbus might attempt something similar. "Seasons of Love" is sung by the eight lead actors on a bare stage in an empty theater. This suggested to me that the film to follow might be nothing more than a filmed version of their staged memories. Alas, there's nothing else in the film to really support that notion, but I still like it.

I suspect that any attempts to "explain" the songs ("Where is the music coming from? How is it that all these strangers suddenly know the same tune?") were rejected lest they remind viewers of "Chicago" too much. In this age of MTV, the producers have said in interviews, audiences are comfortable enough with people singing their emotions.

I think the real problem that critics have with "Rent" is that the emotions are so direct. Jonathan Larson idolized Stephen Sondheim (don't we all?), but it's clear from "Rent" that he really inherited the spirit of Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. There's very little irony in the heart of "Rent", while sometimes I worry that Sondheim musicals have no heart at all.

I bought the cast recording of "Rent" when it came out in the fall of 1996. I remember that I went into Tower Records the morning that "Rent" was released, and sat down in a Berkeley cafe to listen. Nine years on, there are lyrics that I cringe at, and some bits that make me roll my eyes. But I still find a lot of beauty in a piece that's so open, so direct, so joyful. Hearing the Life Support anthem "Will I" in the theater made me tear up once again.

I loved the film of "Rent" in the same way that I love old photos of my former, more idealistic self.


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