Did composer Jonathan Larson really die mere hours before his runaway hit musical Rent made its off-Broadway premiere? I don't dispute the fact that Larson, 35, succumbed to an aortic aneurysm in January 1996. But by passing away, in effect, during his musical's childbirth, it's like Larson achieved instant immortality.
Larson's update of Puccini's La Boheme for New York's Alphabet City neighborhood circa 1990 depicts a diverse band of creative young people championing love and art against the forces of drug addiction, financial needs and AIDS. Larson couldn't have written a fate more tragic than his own, and with Rent as his final testament, it's like the creator didn't so much die as transubstantiate into the work itself. Larson's untimely end doubtless contributes to Rent's enduring mystique, his posthumous Tony and Pulitzer prizes, and the high expectations for the new movie. But director Chris Columbus' often vivacious film seldom finds the right scale for Larson's legend or his music.
Two numbers neatly showcase Larson's talent. In an empty theater the cast sings "Seasons of Love," a delicate tune that approaches the lyrical richness of Stephen Sondheim in the question, how do you measure a year? In minutes, in love, in something else? Then rock guitar licks shake the dust out of the whole musical genre with the propulsive, angry title track. Two roommates, documentarian Mark (Anthony Rapp) and rock musician Roger (Adam Pascal), rail against life's pressures, burning their posters and screenplays for warmth in their loft apartment.
When the whole neighborhood joins them to proclaim, "We're not gonna pay rent!" they mean that they refuse to sell out their dreams. But they also sound like freeloading artistes with inflated senses of entitlement. Between his death and his talent, Larson gets cut a lot of slack, but in Rent and the even more autobiographical tick, tick ... BOOM!, produced at the Alliance Hertz Stage in the fall, his universal themes of art vs. commerce can sound more like self-obsessed whining over economic realities. After all, everyone has bills to pay.
Still, Rent's delighted refusal to grow up can make it irresistibly seductive. In the best number, the friends gather in the coffeehouse Central Perk -- sorry, I mean Life Cafe -- to break into "La Vie Boheme," a show-stopping, exhaustive salute to all things bohemian, from marijuana to anarchy to sodomy to Pee Wee Herman. The song -- with its sexual and racial inclusion and its utopian ideals like "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation!" -- captures the joy of being young, passionate and in New York. I'll have what they're having.
Rent's best songs share the scruffy exuberance of the numbers in 1980's Fame. Wilson Jermaine Heredia's vitality as drag queen Angel shines through, especially in "Today 4 U." With hip-hop patter, Latin percussion and a costume worthy of a Radio City Rockette, the song virtually serves as a fireworks display and adds to the poignancy of Angel's HIV-positive status. A sweet romance develops between Angel and Tom, and their sparkling, let's-play-house duet "I'll Cover You" sounds almost revolutionary coming from two men.
Most of Rent's ensemble played the same roles on Broadway, including Taye Diggs as a former friend turned buppie scum landlord. As Mimi -- named for La Boheme's heroine with tuberculosis -- Rent virgin Rosario Dawson may not have the vocal chords for a Broadway house, but she brings such spirit and sexual charisma to the film that she could sound like a broken fax machine and still be a welcome addition.
Rent rides into theaters on the coat-tails of Chicago, which revived movie musicals for the new decade. In Chicago, though, director Rob Marshall appreciated the difference between stage and screen, and he knew when to play a number loud enough to fill a Broadway house, and when to drop to an intimate whisper for a close-up. Columbus nearly always plays Rent all big, all the time, to the material's detriment.
Adam Pascal's more heavily rock-influenced numbers play more like a drawn-out Bon Jovi video. Maureen (Idina Menzel) has a kind of performance art piece that perfectly fits the Manhattan avant-garde of the time, but comes across as self-absorbed and obnoxious rather than comedically appealing. Sometimes you look at Rent and wonder, is it really the tone Columbus was going for? The film's concern over the homeless feels perfectly in keeping with the period, but in its vision of a New York overrun with muggers, bag ladies and squeegee men, the film could be a Republican satire of the days before Rudy Giuliani.
Rent builds to a touching funeral and a superb reprise of two of the best songs, but rather than go out on a strong note, the film retains the musical's melodramatic final portion, including a ridiculous death scene that, on a movie screen, feels like having a billboard yell at you for five minutes. But more often than not, Rent manages to honor Larson's memory, and even if the film is forgotten a year from now, Larson's music will continue to live on.