Starring: Will Chase (Roger), Eden Espinoza (Maureen), Renee Elise Goldberry (Mimi), Rodney Hicks (Benny), Justin Johnston (Angel), Adam Kantor (Mark), Michael McElroy (Tom), Tracie Thoms (Joanne), and Gwen Stewart (Seasons of Love soloist).
That RENT is a well-done, if imperfect show, has been chronicled since its opening back in the mid-90's. It is widely agreed, even among the original cast and creative team, the Larson would have done much repair - adding/cutting songs, trimming awkward dialogue, etc. - but that was never to be. And it is somewhat to the show's advantage that it remains as it was, warts and all, for it retains its author's original intent, energy and direction - an imperfect, but wonderful moment in time frozen forever. So, with the advent of the DVD, discussing the merits and pitfalls of the show itself is both unnecessary and somewhat disrespectful in a way. But what can be discussed is the quality and value of forever memorializing the final performance.
There is, I suppose, some irony in the fact that musical itself is filtered through the medium of film - the story of the late millennium Greenwich Village Bohemians is told by videographer Mark Cohen, and by putting the theatrical version on film, we can see the show through the same device. The big difference is that Mark's use of the camera is both character driven and metaphorically sound to the story. Watching a live performance through the filter of a camera, a director and several editors is a whole different thing. While one can watch the whole stage picture and select where to focus is up to the audience member entirely, we as a movie audience have those choices made for us. Is this, in this case, a good or bad thing? Both, actually.
On the negative side, much of the staging, NOT changed for the filming, was done with an eye toward the broad picture, with isolated moments and "close ups" carefully chosen by director Michael Greif and his lighting designer. Film director Michael John Warren has all of that to consider, plus where else we get to see the action from his well-placed cameras. Often, we are given moving close-ups during company numbers, where the singers are focused on as they sing. The problem, especially during the "Will I Lose My Dignity?" and numbers like that, is that solo lines are said from far points on the stage, and instead of quickly cross-cutting the camera moves as our head would, the camera pans the stage, thus getting us to the next singer too late or at half way through their lines. Other times, the camera pans up, blinding us in the stage lighting. Then there are the bizarre times when Warren has chosen to go directly from a tight close up to a full stage shot, which is jarring to say the least.
Still there are great advantages, especially for fans who know the show and avid theatre-lovers who crave a chance to see thing from a backstage/onstage point of view, and I'm not just talking about the terrific bonus features (reviewed later in this piece). There are several sequences brilliantly cut in a almost a music video style that both embrace and strengthen the theatricality of the staging, namely "Christmas Bells Are Ringing," "Wet," and the particularly moving "Without You" numbers. Then, too, there are the opportunities to see the acting up close, and often with an actor facing upstage. Then we see what the cast sees, where as if we were in the audience we'd only hear, not see the actor acting. This happens frequently in scenes between Roger and Mimi and Angel and Tom, and to great emotional effect.
Having had the benefit and supreme privilege of seeing the original Broadway cast shortly after the opening, I can testify to the raw energy and passion of that unique group. A largely unseasoned group, the daring, in your face mentality of those Broadway newbies and their lack of show biz polish added an undirectable edge to the piece, adding only more to the heavy burden and hugely life-transforming event the show became because of Larson's death. In short, their unique perspective, lack of experience and indestructible bond could never be replicated, much like the original cast of A Chorus Line, whose only real difference from the RENT cast was that they were telling their own story. Even the original RENTers couldn't replicate that initial synergy when they gathered to make the film version a few years ago. And just like it would be unfair to compare the Chorus Line original cast to say, the revival cast, so, too is it unfair to compare the original RENTers with the final RENTers. The producers of the stage version wisely orchestrated their leaving the Great White Way by gathering a cast of New York's finest, young and best actor/singers for the final company, rather than try to arrange for the original cast (too old) or for completely unknowns (too green to not go through the entire creation process). The result is probably the best post-original cast of the show, full of people who didn't help create, but fully embrace the piece as a masterpiece of musical theatre.
As lesbian couple Maureen and Joanne, Eden Espinoza and Tracie Thoms (sole RENT movie actor in the cast) have awesome chemistry and push and pull as they fight their way through their relationship. Miss Espinoza knows how to walk that line between oddly enticing and off-putting, just as Maureen should. Her "Over the Moon" performance art piece is terrific, even if she has just a wee bit too much polish to be convincing as truly avant-garde. But their Act Two diva duet, "Take Me or Leave Me" is electrifying - a stagy, theatrical and vocally thrilling moment if ever there was one.
Michael McElroy, one of Broadway's greatest voices today, is no less than brilliant as Tom Collins, a lonely HIV+ guy who finds love after a beating with Angel (Justin Johnston), a sweet, equally sick transvestite, who has chosen to grab life like the brass ring that it is. Their chemistry is so real, you'd swear they were truly lovers! Their "Santa Fe"/"I'll Cover You" duets are joyful and uplifting, making McElroy's solo "I'll Cover You" all the more sad and emotionally rich later in act two.
Finally, there are two members of the final company that were in the original, Gwen Stewart, who reprises her roles, including chiefly the "Seasons of Love" soloist. I'm glad to report that her voice has gotten richer and more moving the intervening years. Rodney Hicks has moved up from the ensemble to play Benny, the villain of the piece. And he does quite well, even if he doesn't completely erase the mark left on the role by Taye Diggs. He sings well, and his acting is fine, but he comes across like he is ACTING, not living the role. Still, he doesn’t stick out in any discernible way, and that is good, too for an ensemble piece like this one.
RENT has a special place in Broadway history for many reasons, but two of the unique ones are is famous wall, where anyone of any note who has been in or visited backstage has signed their best wishes. It is the kind of thing only Broadway would have, and it was a legend very few people got to see first hand. Now we can all enjoy it with the bonus The Wall. The other thing that RENT really left a mark on Broadway with was its instituting a Lottery/Rush policy, where the first two rows (and occasionally some side-view seats) are filled in by people who put their names in a hat for the chance at those tickets for a mere $20.00 each! This policy allows many folks who can't even afford TKTS tickets to enjoy the best of Broadway. Since then, almost every show has some sort of Lottery (Wicked, Avenue Q) and/or discounts for all (Chicago) or students (Billy Elliot). And nearly every theatre has significantly dropped the price of rear mezzanine seats. And all of that is thanks to Jonathan Larson, who famously said before he had any idea RENT would even be produced, "If this makes it, I won't be able to afford to see my own show." The last time this is done is wonderfully archived in the documentary, The Final Lottery, which includes a visibly moved lottery wrangler who loves his job and will miss it terribly.
RENT is about living for the moment and knowing when and how to say goodbye, a sentiment oft expressed by this final company who struggle to put on the best show that they can while still savoring every minute of it. With the filming of this last performance, we can all relive those final, thrilling moments of a true Broadway legend.
Photos: Top: The Final Company of RENT in "La Vie Boehme" (Justin Johnston and Michael McElroy, center); Left to Right, below: Adam Kantor, Tracie Thoms and Eden Espinoza. Bottom: Will Chase and Gwen Stewart.