It's a well-established fact that I'm a huge theater nerd. Not the "As I child I saw Phantom of the Opera with my parents and did a play in high school" kind of nerd. Oh nonononono, friends, I mean NERD. Specific to Rent, my nerdiness includes the receiving of a poster signed by the original cast for my fourteenth Christmas, countless hours of singing along with the cast album in the shower, car and various dorm rooms and finally, being SO EXCITED to see the touring company in Detroit that I completely forgot to buy anything for my mother's birthday because it was on the same day as the matinee we were attending and therefore my attention was entirely elsewhere.
You want more? OK, when I made my "Philosophical Self-Portrait" for senior year philosophy class, no less than three pages of the twenty-page work contained references to Rent, including an entire page with just the lyrics of "La Vie Boheme". Of course, in this class I also accompanied myself on the electric keyboard while singing Tori Amos' "Silent All These Years." That incident is one of the many reasons I will never attend a high school reunion.
So we saw the movie version of Rent last night, and I'm still trying to work out exactly how I feel about it. It was not the enormous disaster it could have been, that's for damn sure. There were some pleasant surprises (Rosario Dawson can sing!) and even some things that translated better on the screen than on stage(Jesse L. Martin's big cuddly grin!).
You know what it reminded me of? Paging through my high school yearbook. I did this over Thanksgiving, and even though high school isn't in the distant past just yet, it feels like light years ago. Browsing through glitter-pen decorated pages, I laughed (what was I thinking with that red hair?), I cried (was my stomach really once that flat?) and I winced a LOT (a girl on yearbook staff who didn't like me captioned a picture of me in The Music Man with "EJ conveys a look of superiority." Ouch).
Rent was the same way. I didn't want to get my expectations up, which was good. No matter how much I loved it on stage, it was bound to get a little muddied in translation to film. Changing song lyrics into dialogue, no matter how much the actors ignored the cadences they once sang, just sucks. Talk about cringing.
That flaw aside, it was still worth it. They used most of the original cast, who miraculously can still pass for 20somethings. There was no attempt to update it to the present, which, seeing how the Lower East Side is now littered with Starbucks and Alphabet City is as much a tourist stop at Lincoln Center, is a relief. The transitions between songs were awkward, but once they started singing it felt great. I'll even admit to crying during Angel's funeral, though I was really embarrassed about it and glad I'd worn my glasses as to better conceal any evidence.
What really freaked me out was watching the film and realizing what a yuppie I've become. Rent-free loft in New York? Do you KNOW what people would do for that? Shut up and film your damn friends after you shoot your "sell-out footage," you whiny kid. It's called A Day Job. Even Jonathan Larson waited tables and THEN went home to bitch about art and life. And ROGER-- CAN WE PLEASE DISCUSS HOW EXACTLY IT TAKES A YEAR TO WRITE THAT SONG? I know you're heartbroken and going through withdrawal and everything, but John Mayer could have pulled that song out of his ass in five minutes. I expected better, you sexy, sexy man. Finding myself sympathizing with Benny, the guy who's just trying to collect the rent from his old friends who are refusing to pay up, was a totally unexpected and unwelcome phenomenon.
But then, when I loved this show as a teenager, I didn't pay rent myself. Nor did I pay my phone bill, taxes, budget for Meow Mix and worry about balancing my career with a social life and if I should ever go back to school and should I pay off my Amex bill in entirety even if it means I have no cash for the rest of December? I was a misfit kid who loved a show about a bunch of misfit kids who found each other and held on tight, even as they made crap choices and didn't want to own the consequences. They didn't do anything well except love one another, and that part translated loud and clear onto the screen.
So it wasn't perfect. It's so strongly identified with a place and time, both as an extant show and in the minds of people who see it. You can't go home again, and I can no longer view a show about dilettantes without rolling my eyes a little and thinking "Get a job."
But I laughed, and I cried. And it was hella better than Cats.