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RENT makes a seamless transition from the stage to the big screen

Lisa Johansen

As someone who fell in love with the stage production of RENT, I was rather apprehensive of its success as a film adaptation. My apprehension was spawned, in part, because I find it a little weird when people spontaneously burst into song, but in stage musicals I can believe it. This is where the problem of making the jump from stage to the big screen comes in and the reason that most stage musicals fail as movies, but others, like RENT, manage to make the transition.

The film begins with the most popular song, “Seasons of Love,” with all eight cast members standing on a bare soundstage, each in their own spotlight. Opening with the musical’s signature song was a great way to introduce viewers to the major theme of the story: love. From there, the film follows the original arc of the story about eight friends as they struggle with poverty, drug addiction, relationships and AIDS at the end of the 1980s.

The biggest problem with the film is the chemistry between the characters. All but two are from the original stage cast. Many of the cast members seem tired of their roles, delivering extremely rehearsed performances. But newcomer Rosario Dawson (Mimi), and original cast members Anthony Rapp and Wilson Jermaine Heredia deliver energetic and inspired performances.

It has taken RENT almost 10 years to make the jump from stage to screen. It started as a stage reading in 1993 and debuted as a musical in 1996. The musical garnered rave reviews and a huge cult following during its time on Broadway and as a traveling production. Jonathon Larson, the musical’s creator, died of an undiagnosed brain aneurysm only hours before the stage production’s debut. Larson’s death is said to have brought the cast together in ways they might not have before. Many of the original cast members reprised their roles in the film version.

If anything, RENT embraces its song and dance numbers, transitioning from dialogue to fully choreographed songs with only slight clumsiness. The film adaptation of RENT makes no effort to hide its Broadway roots; it embraces the original stage version, merely trying to enhance, not revamp.

The film version allows audiences to see close-ups of the cast’s faces, something that is difficult to get in the theater setting unless you can afford orchestra seats. Director Chris Columbus takes full advantage of the film medium, creating montages and dream sequences not possible in the play.

All in all, fans of the stage version may take issue with the film version; the questionable chemistry between cast members does not leave audiences with the bittersweet feeling of the stage performance. But the advantages of film win out over the restrictions of the stage.