It may sound strange to say that Jonathan Larson's Rent, a stage musical inspired by the opera La Bohème, might not exist without Andrew Lloyd Webber. What, after all, do Lower East Side bohemian artists have to do with phantoms and divas? But Webber also wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, which itself might not exist without Ragni, Rado and MacDermot, the trio behind Hair.
Everything in popular culture owes to something, and Chris Columbus' film of Rent owes to Larson's creditors, and then some: Rent occasionally recalls the overblown Superstar film, and also Milos Forman's under-appreciated 1979 filming of Hair, which necessarily re-thought the ultra-dated '60s stage version. It's good to have these shows available, so why quibble with how the cinema changes, opens up or -- if you really want to be nasty -- "destroys" the original?
Rent, which is only a little bit dated by now, begins on Christmas Eve, 1989, and spends a year in the life of eight characters who identify less along racial, economic or sexual orientation lines than by their HIV status, which looms over their lives.
The positives are Roger (Adam Pascal), a singer/guitarist who can't complete a song of his own; Mimi (Rosario Dawson), the drug-addled stripper who enters his life; Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a philosophy teacher; and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), his new drag queen boyfriend. The negatives are Mark (Anthony Rapp), who documents their lives in Super 8; Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark's ex, a self-absorbed performance artist now dating Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer; and Benny (Taye Diggs), formerly their downtown pal, now married to an uptown girl.
Three of them live in a decaying building in Alphabet City that Benny's wealthy father-in-law wants to rehab into condos. That -- and the love affairs among them, in the midst of the plague -- creates ample dramatic tension and romantic idealism.
Six of these eight actors performed in the first Broadway cast a decade ago, and they're all uncompromisingly powerful. (Menzel especially is a blast in "Over the Moon," Maureen's performance-art protest piece.) Larson's spirited music, mired in sadness, runs the gamut: from show tunes to pop rock and from power ballads to a tango, some blues and even a flourish of gospel at the inevitable funeral. You can take a lesson from their suffering if you like, but Larson eschews moralizing, choosing instead to honor their creative passion, however naïve it might sometimes seem.
Of course, Columbus over-produces it all: The stage cast has 15 members; the film has a gross of extras filling in the chorus and the crowds. When you have guys kissing guys (and gals kissing gals), you need to put on a show, so this is bohemia for the masses. But it's the same musical, only different, and nothing can deaden its palpable melancholy. Columbus opens Rent with his actors singing the show's signature tune, "Seasons of Love," on a bare stage. A decade after we first heard it, it still soars.