Monday, September 29, 2008

Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway

As a first blogoversary present to myself, yesterday I saw Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway. What a treat! Watching the musical unfold on the big screen brought back a lot of the same emotions that I felt when I saw the touring production in January.

Plus, the music is so great. I love what my fellow blogger Chris rightly refers to as the late Jonathan Larson's "kick-ass score." I'm not sure whether Chris would agree, but I think that with "La Vie Boheme" and "Seasons of Love" Rent has one of the best first act closings/second act openings I've ever seen. How can you beat that combination?

Sure, there are some big differences between seeing a musical live and at the movies, even if it's a movie of a live performance. You don't get quite the same adrenaline rush. My screening was only about one-third full and while there seemed to be a lot of Rentheads, the audience was very low key.

Another difference that struck me: When you're watching a show on stage, you decide where your eye goes. With a movie, the camera determines what you see to a great extent - in this case, lots of extreme close-ups.

I liked the jumpy camera work that made even the most energetic and frenetic parts of Rent seem even more energetic and frenetic. But some of the close-ups were a bit distracting - like wow, I can see that person's fillings! Also, for some reason, I was fixated on Roger's painted-black nails and tattooed fingers, which I probably wasn't close enough notice when I saw Rent live on stage.

Some of the relationships that didn't quite work for me last time really clicked this time. Eden Espinosa and Tracie Thoms were sizzling as the tempestuous lovers Maureen and Joanne. Maureen, the free-spirited artist, and Joanne, the button-down lawyer, wouldn't seem to have much in common. But wow, were they on fire together, especially during their duet, "Take Me or Leave Me."

I like Rent's story of struggling artists coping with a life of poverty and illness in a rundown New York City neighborhood. But I've always had a bit of a problem with the characters of Mark and Maureen. To me, they just seem like privileged suburban kids pretending to be something that they're not. But maybe I've mellowed, because I thought Adam Kantor was sweet as Mark. Even Maureen's performance art was funny rather than grating this time around.

Justin Johnston's drag queen Angel was absolutely endearing in a performance that moves from very comical to extremely heartbreaking. What struck me was the contrast. When he's dying of AIDS, his makeup and wig and costumes are gone and he's lying curled up in a ball in pair of thin white pajamas. He looks so small and young, especially when his lover, Michael McElroy's Tom Collins, is carrying him. I was in tears when Collins sings "I'll Cover You."

And I thought Will Chase's Roger and Renee Elise Goldsberry's Mimi, as two people coping with HIV, did a great job of conveying their characters' sense of vulnerability. Goldsberry's Mimi especially just seemed so fragile and spunky at the same time. I loved their flirtatiousness in "Light My Candle." The one thing that disappointed me a bit was "One Song Glory." I just remember it being more dramatic in the touring production, when Roger's shadow is projected larger-than-life on the brick wall behind him.

This movie documents the end of a landmark Broadway show. Rent began previews on April 16, 1996 and closed on Sept. 7, 2008, after 5,123 performances. It would have been nice if there'd been a bit more context, so that we knew we were watching the end of something special. Maybe we could have seen the actors getting ready for the last performance, or some interviews with fans or people associated with Rent, or even more shots of the audience - just to explain to the uninitiated why this was such a landmark musical. But hopefully it'll be released on dvd, and maybe there'll be some extra material.

At the end of the show, when everyone was singing "Seasons of Love," and some of the original cast members come on stage to join them, well that was the most emotional part for me. I doubt I was the only one crying.

All I could of was, before Rent, how many Broadway musicals had this kind of young multiracial, multiethnic cast? And not just as tokens or the butt of jokes or stereotypes, but as real people, completely integrated into the storyline. The same for gay and lesbian characters. Also, at a time when people didn't talk openly about AIDS, you watched people struggling with the disease, expressing fear that they would lose their dignity.

Just looking at all of those actors stage and thinking about their characters really brought home to me why Rent was such a landmark when it opened on Broadway in 1996. Maybe because I could see the actors' faces close up, this time, I just felt it more strongly.

Now, a few other points:
  • The ticket cost $20, the most I've ever paid to see a movie by far. But once I got to my local multiplex, I realized that I could have bought a ticket to any movie - for the $7.50 bargain matinee price - and slipped into see Rent without anyone even noticing. Of course I would never do that because it would be wrong and I'd be too afraid of getting caught. But I wonder how many people did just that?
  • The auditorium itself was only about a third full. I really don't understand why Sony didn't put a little more marketing punch behind this. Rent was included in the theatre's listings, although it was at the bottom. And there was no separate ad the way there was for other movies. Unless you read Playbill or another theatre site regularly you could easily have missed it.
  • Finally, I cannot tell you how many people I saw taking pictures and shooting video with their cell phones. One person way down in the front appeared to record practically the entire second act. Is that even possible on a cell phone? I was tempted to get the management but I was too far away to see who exactly was doing it.
So, after the movie and touring production, this was my third Rent experience. The next Rent tour, with the original Mark and Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, begins in January. When it stops in Boston next July, I definitely want to be there.


Joseph Gomez said...

I too was enamored with Will Chase's hands! Haha!!

My screening had about 12 people in it. And there was NO advertising in TX whatsoever.

Esther said...

I can't believe how under the radar this went. It's almost like they didn't want to attract an audience. And I'm glad I wasn't the only one who was fixated on Will's hands!