I listened to the original Broadway cast recording of Rent on repeat from its release in August 1996 until the end of my freshmen year of college in 1998. I had the show memorized by the end of September 1996 and can still quote from it and sing along anytime I hear any of the songs (or they just randomly pop into my head which happens more frequently than you might expect). My parents, being the incredibly amazing and awesome people that they are, got me tickets to see the Rent for my high school graduation. We also saw Miss Saigon (that helicopter landing is legit) and visited all the places one visits when you go to New York for the first time. Most of the original cast was still in Rent at the time so I consider this trip one of the highlights of my life.
I've loved musicals my whole life. I remember seeing my first live musical, Oklahoma. It was the longest musical of all time and one of my least favorite but I do recall the magic of the music and the costumes and the darkened theatre. This moment cemented my love of musicals and theatre (and I did major in theatre in college). I've watched countless hours of musicals on video and PBS and gone to
more than I can count. I even met Sebastian Bach from Skid Row because
of a musical (no leather pants - shame). Some of my favorites include A Chorus Line, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin, Cabaret, Once Upon a Mattress, and My Fair Lady. My favorite Stephen Sondheim musical is Assassins and I have a soft spot in my heart for The Sound of Music.
Rent is my absolute favorite musical. Unlike the other musicals I love, Rent was mine. It was about people that lived lives that I think my theatre friends and I imagined we'd live when we all became artists in New York after we graduated (minus a few things I'm sure). The songs were more rock and roll than Rodgers and Hammerstein which I loved most as I was forging ahead in my punk rock/hard rock girl identity. I knew everything about Jonathan Larson, the genius writer of Rent, who left this world before his time. I had and still have a crush on Roger. I wish I could sing "Over the Moon" like Idina Menzel. Like all aspiring theatre artists, I was expecting a life of poverty and cold New York apartments and crappy jobs (or no jobs) until I got my big break. The characters of Rent were living and that's exactly what my seventeen year old self wanted to be doing. Damn suburban Virginia and college! I want the Life Cafe and buying coats on the streets of New York and Evita-like dogs and protests that involved mooing. That is life.
There are songs in that musical that still give me chills when I hear them nineteen years later. My favorite is "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" (audio version here; movie version here). I cry every time I listen to this song; I cannot listen to it in my car because I will get in an accident. Collins and Angel (played originally by Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia) are my favorite couple in the play. I think their love story is the purest and most touching of all the love stories; there's no conceit, no expectation of anything but what happens each day. This is the song that plays as Angel dies and when Collins sings "When your heart has expired" I dare you not to become a pile of mush. Part of it is Jesse L. Martin (second crush of the cast) and his delivery; most of it is the raw emotion of the song.
So you can imagine all the feelings I had (and all Rent fans had) when it was announced that a film version of our beloved musical was being made. Many of the original cast members would be reprising their roles; Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs (and his abs), Idina Menzel, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia were all back for the film. Missing were Daphne Rubin-Vega (the original Mimi) and Fredi Walker (the original Joanne). Rubin-Vega was pregnant at the time and Walker declined the role. I enjoyed Traci Thoms as Joanne; she was somehow quieter than Walker but still seemed to be a match for Maureen. I have a hard time believing the Mark-Maureen-Joanne love triangle in the film but it has nothing to do with Thoms. It just doesn't seem as vibrant as in the stage version. I never warmed to Rosario Dawson as Mimi. Technically, she was the name in the film. She wasn't bad but she wasn't Mimi either. The film version wasn't terrible; it wasn't the musical but it wasn't the worst adaptation of a Broadway musical to grace the silver screen. I cried at all the places I cried when I saw it on Broadway and when I listen to the soundtrack. The changes to the film didn't bother me as they did others but the film lacked the spirit of the stage production. It's a musical that needs an audience and a stage. It just makes more sense that way.
I was thinking about this in the lead up to the release of Into the Woods (I have not yet seen it; I'm going this weekend). I've been dying to see the film version of this musical since the first rumblings that it was coming soon to a theatre near me. Stephen Sondheim was going to be involved and the casting seemed ideal. I will confess something now: I'm not an Into the Woods super fan. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a beautiful, dark musical (my favorite kind of musical). I've heard the original cast recording countless times and have seen both the concert version and a version of the show with the original cast (y'all support your PBS station) but unlike other musicals, I was never "captured" by Into the Woods so I'm less likely to get riled up about the film adaptation. The same thing happened when Les Miserables came out; I understood that there would be things that Broadway fans like myself would not enjoy or agree with. My favorite musical theatre actors would probably not be portraying the characters they created on Broadway because that's not the way it works in Hollywood.
Do I agree with this? Not particularly but it's part of bringing musicals to film audiences now versus the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s when film adaptations of musicals were popular and made studios money (for the most part). Theatre actors could, to some degree, make the transition to the film and still go back to the theatre when they were done. There were exceptions to casting of course, Natalie Wood in West Side Story or Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady; maybe those were the first moves by Hollywood to change the game when it came to movie musicals. Unfortunately, Carol Lawrence (Maria from the original Broadway cast) wasn't going to open a movie and that is an important part of making films in Hollywood (at least from what I can tell). It's also what drives NBC to mount two live productions of musicals on tv with unusual casting choices (or really ridiculous ones). They want people to watch.
We (the collective Broadway musical fans of the world) have to remember something: they are not making these films for us. They are making these films for a larger, non-musical loving audience. That larger audience may not have the encyclopedic knowledge of original casts and recordings. They may not obsess over everything Stephen Sondheim has ever written. They may not have an interest in sitting through a three hour movie that involves singing rather than dragons and explosions. But that interest might be piqued if someone famous that they do love (Wolverine or the new Captain Kirk or Superman's dad or the girl that sings the cups song) is in the film. They will come out to see Beyonce be a Dreamgirl or Renee as Roxie. I can have my opinions on all of these things and hate the film version or love it or feel ambivalent about it. That's my prerogative and the prerogative of every musical theatre fan. Get your feelings out; it's healthier that way.
But still go to see the film. Even if you think you're going to hate it (and it's very possible that you will hate it, I'm looking at you Rob Marshall and Chicago). If we don't go to see these films and be vocal, then the next one won't get made. Someone like Stephen Sondheim will say, "Nope. Sorry, I don't want to be involved" the next time someone asks him to adapt one of his musicals for the screen. If that happens, chaos will follow. We'll never see another musical movie again.
My hope every time a musical movie comes out is that in the audience in some theatre somewhere in the world, someone is being inspired by the musical. Maybe that person never had the opportunity to go see a play or musical; that's a reality for a lot of people. Maybe the experience moves this person to find out more about the original musical or go see a live production in their town. Maybe it inspires them to go to Broadway to see a show or two. Maybe they sit down and write their own musical and that musical touches our hearts the way Rent touched mine. Maybe that musical gets made into a movie one day. And maybe that movie inspires someone else.
Remember, "Children Will Listen" or so the Witch tells us at the end of Into the Woods. So let them listen.