A play revolving around the depressing subject-matter of impoverished young people living in the shadow of AIDS would, to a lot of people, hardly sound like the most entertaining night out. Chuck in song and dance numbers, and it’s hardly surprising that Rent has become the subject of numerous parodies – not least the memorable song “Everyone has AIDS” from 2004’s irreverent Team America: World Police.
It is only when armed with the knowledge that Rent was itself based on the mournful Puccini opera La bohème, in which a group of poor artists coped with the threat of tuberculosis, that the musical format begins to make sense. This is not the usual uplifting yet frivolous spectacle of most Broadway shows, but a serious musical for a serious subject.
The fact that the words “serious” and “musical” had rarely been used in the same sentence before its debut, in New York on 29 April 1996, may be part of the reason that it was met with such widespread success and acclaim, from Tony awards to a Pulitzer prize and innumerable shows across the world. That its playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 36 the day before its first preview only added to the sense of sadness and youthful loss that pervades the work.
For an unusual musical, an unusual Hollywood adaptation seems only fitting. So whereas Chicago came to the screen with big name Hollywood stars blaring out the hits and shaking their stuff in a passable, if hardly overly ambitious, version of the stage play, here almost the entire original Broadway cast has been brought from stage to screen. The only vaguely recognisable name – at least to those unfamiliar with the Broadway version – is that of Rosario Dawson, most recently seen as the violent prostitute gang leader in slick comic book adaptation Sin City, but she hardly counts as a star.
In fact, the only apparent concession to Hollywood is the appointment of the decidedly second-rate Chris Columbus as director, following early dalliances with the infinitely more imaginative and interesting Spike Jonze and Baz Luhrman. Moulin Rouge’s Lurhman in particular would have been a fine choice, yet Columbus – now probably best known as the man responsible for the first two Harry Potter movies – is at least a reliable hack, and certainly provides a more interesting stage to screen translation than Chicago’s inexplicably Oscar-nominated Rob Marshall did.
Sadly, as with Chicago, much of the energy and spontaneity of the stage show has been lost in the transition to the screen. But as with that other recent transition, the songs, story and characters remain largely intact, and with them the prime reason for the success of the original show. As cinema it is nothing amazing, and not a patch on the great musicals of yesteryear – but as theatre it is undoubtedly still a great, if often depressing, night out. If you’re a fan of the stage version, or of musicals as a whole, you won’t be disappointed.