Rent, the film based on the Broadway musical, is being released to theaters nationwide today. Elizabeth, Allison and I, along with hundreds of other lucky individuals, got the opportunity to see it Monday. It brought back pleasant memories of seeing Rent twice in the last six and a half years. It was also one of the best films I have seen this year, at least, in terms of English language films.

1999
My girlfriend of the time and I had broken up and I was still quite upset. Perhaps to get my mind off of things, my mother suggested a five day trip to London followed by a few weeks in Israel with my cousin Gadi. It was during the five day stay in London that I got to see Rent – I’m not sure if Israel has gotten to have Rent produced yet, or if it would be successful. Before the breakup, we were going to go and see Beauty and the Beast on my birthday – that being July 30th. I gave her back the tickets when we broke up as I felt that it would be inappropriate to see it given the circumstances. Interestingly enough, I ended up leaving for London on my birthday.

The flight was one of the best I have ever had, chiefly because I had a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and was more than willing to share them. The airline steward asked if I had brought enough for everyone. Sadly, I did not, but he was okay with that. Some of them came over to my seat to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, and I think I just about had an entire pot of British Airways tea. Honestly, I’m not sure what sort of tea they use. It’s certainly not Tetley.

At the Airport in England, I took a black cab to my mother’s friend’s apartment, where I felt a strong need to take a nap. It was actually a suggested nap, but I’m glad that I took it, because the travel was quite tiring. After the nap we walked over to the half price ticket booth and queued up. Much like TKTS, the tickets are limited in availability and strictly cash only. After looking over some of the possibilities I decided that it would be great to see Rent. My thought on the matter was that seeing Rent in London would be even better and more spectacular than seeing it in New York.

How could this be? Well, think about the setting of Rent. It’s not all that far from where you’re sitting and watching the play. To me it seems like a greater effort of acting as an actor in London. Playing the character is not the only thing they are doing in the musical – they are also playing the role of New Yorkers. Well, maybe I’m a little wacky for thinking so, but it seems to make at least a little sense.

That all being said, I loved seeing Rent the first time. I had listened to the soundtrack a few times, having effectively acquired the soundtrack – let’s not get into that. Knowing the soundtrack and a rough idea of what the play was about did not prepare me for the actual experience of seeing the play. At several points during the play I was moved to tears. If you’re not too familiar with the story line, it is based on the Puccini opera La Bohème. The basic plot is of the struggle for survival of a group of young artists and musicians in New York City.

Unlike in New York, in London theatre (at least at that time) no playbills are given out. Rather, they are available for purchase. As I was staying with one of my mother’s best friends and she cared about me like she would a son, she bought me one. As a result of not being free, these playbills are not as chock-full of advertisements as the ones you might get in a Broadway theater.

2004
Elizabeth was visiting New York for a short amount of time, and wanted to see a Broadway production. She had her heart set on seeing Mama Mia – interestingly enough, we are going to see that here in Seattle next month, G-d willing. Despite a vigorous search, I was unable to find tickets to Mama Mia. I was, however, able to get tickets to see Rent – she didn’t object too strongly to this.

For a detailed story of the process of getting to the show and everything related to that, see my Rent Adventure Story from then. Onto the actual play itself. I had a few reservations about seeing Rent in New York, having seen it in London and having had all of the silly thoughts I had about the strength of an English actor playing the part of a New Yorker.

I was quite happy with the New York performance that we attended, and found it to be equally moving and passionate as the one that I saw in London. The strength of the musical lies not just in the ability of the actors to act, but to convincingly sing and to convey the emotion of the sung dialogue thusly. This seems doubly the case in Rent, where practically every single last line of dialogue is sung. The actors here were extraordinary in this aspect, and I felt an honest emotional bond with the characters, which is another important aspect to keeping a play from falling apart mid-scene. I can’t help but wonder how emotionally engaging the characters in my lone play are. I will have to stage it to find out. How frightening this prospect is.

2005: The Film
When you’re staging a theatrical production, one of the things that you have to bear in mind is that you will probably want to have at least a good handful of locations for the action to take place. Having an entire play set in a person’s one bedroom apartment might seem like an interesting idea, but in all likelihood the character is going to want to step out once in awhile to their local diner or park. The trick is how to manage to have all of these different sets and to be able to transition from one to the other in between scenes and acts without causing undue stress or the wearing down of patience of the audience. What seems like a few brief moments on stage can drag by a lot slower when you’re sitting in the audience, and stage managers must bear this in mind.

When dealing with a film, however, such constrictions are removed. Other problems arise, however, specifically in the area of editing for time. Perhaps a day will come when American producers will be okay with making four hour films like Lagaan. Until then, we will have to suffer from having songs cut out of musicals that are brought to film. Such is the case with Rent. As mentioned above, practically all of the dialogue is sung in the play, from the greetings exchanged to the answering machine messages. Moreover, there were a few songs cut – notably: You Okay Honey? and Christmas Bells are Ringing, amongst others.

There is another point of view on the matter, however. It is very easy to walk into a theater to see a film based on a novel or play, and be very disappointed by how one compares to the other. What I have done to avoid such heartbreak is to see the film as an entirely separate entity. The film can be seen as a sort of retelling of the story, not just actors in front of a camera doing whatever the novel says they are doing. I have found this perspective to be quite helpful when going to see the Harry Potter films, for example, and I imagine it will be just as helpful when I will go to see Pride and Prejudice.

Conclusion
From hearing about the play when it first emerged on Broadway to seeing the film this last Monday, it has been a good experience. Perhaps if the film had been produced and made in Mumbai it would have been longer and had no songs cut, but on its own it was excellent. If you have not yet seen it I suggest you do so when you can.

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