Wednesday, November 23, 2005

MOVIE MUSINGS: Rent : Will It Succeed?

Today Rent opens in theaters, and it's been getting some pretty solid reviews. A.O. Scott, over at The New York Times, terms the film "occasionally silly, often melodramatic and never subtle," as well as "openhearted to a fault."

Just a few months ago, my book about the modern movie musical and the current "re-birth" was released, Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond. So naturally, I have a few reflections about the arrival of this Chris Columbus adaptation of the popular Jonathan Larson 1996 theatrical venture, and its chances at the national box office. Let's lay out the arguments pro and con. Starting with con.

Rent is the ultimate "blue state" stage musical, I'd say (and I did say it, in The New York Post.) That's a distinctly double-edged sword in our divided culture. Because it concerns topics such as AIDS, drug addiction and sexual orientation, any movie adaptation of Rent is automatically going to frighten away Red State Grannies at the same time it speaks trenchantly to Blue State-rs. That's a problem for the studio suits and accounting bean counters, because it is many of those Red State Grannies who represent a chunk of the audience for movie musicals of old, having grown up with classics such as Singin' in the Rain, Oklahoma, South Pacific and the like. What will they think of a musical involving AIDs?

On stage, Rent is extremely popular in cities such as New York and Chicago because it speaks directly to the modern (or at least 1990s...) problems of a group of young adult urbanites in a context that has meaning and relevance for that specific audience. The play is about art, selling out, the future (or lack thereof -- "no day but today")...in short, the human experience. But to put it bluntly, what's immensely popular on Broadway isn't necessarily going to play well in Peoria, and I think that's probably the biggest concern so far as Rent's subject matter. .

Also, as I'm learning from a few the reviews of my book (!), Rent also has much to worry about from the vocal musical theater fans...the dreaded purists. In my book, these elitists objected to the fact that I liked De-Lovely, for instance. Why! How could I? Modern singers (like Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette) singing Cole Porter?!! Nah, we have to slam that down! So from a purist point of view, you always have to be concerned. Purists are by definition, hardcore. They're never going to be happy with any changes from the original stage show, especially if the original cast isn't involved in a significant capacity. So Rent has to navigate that tightrope too. Since the film does feature most of the original cast, the purists might hold their fire on this occasion.

For an example of the purists on the war path, look at how negatively many of them received Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera last year. They objected to Gerard Butler in the lead role -- in particular because of his lack of singing experience. But most of their objections don't really take into account that film is an entirely different medium from theatre. Film requires different things, and therefore you have to judge it differently. Purists tend to forget that. They want a one-for-one translation, but that's just an impossibility considering how different stage and screen remain.

Consider the following: In theatre, you're enjoying an individual live performance; in film, you're seeing something that's been edited, looped, maybe even dubbed. At the very least, it's canned; recorded, not something original to the "moment."

In theatre, you're dealing with the limitations of that proscenium arch, whereas you have the capacity on film to go anywhere and show anything. Indeed, the expectation is that cinema will "open up" a story that seems limited or confined on the stage.

Finally, a theatrical production can essentially cater to a smaller more focused audience: theatre-goers in NYC, for example. A film is expected to play successfully across a vast swath of mainstream America - preferably all on one (opening...) weekend - and that means some rough edges will be polished away to appeal to more folk. But, the moment you do that, the purists go nuts and you risk losing your core demographic. See the problem?

Now let's look at the opposite side of the coin. Here are some reasons why I think Rent may have a good shot at succeeding in cinemas:

It is based on a brand name (a stage show; like Evita, or Chicago or Phantom of the Opera) and has a theme relevant to the experience of many American moviegoers. The cast album was enormously popular and successful, so there is some familiarity with the play's signature tunes too. More to the point, the purists will be encouraged that many original cast members have been retained for the film adaptation.

Also, Rent has already entered the pop culture lexicon after a fashion. As recently as last year, we saw Team America spoof the play with a production called "Lease," which featured the tune "Everybody has AIDS." You can't buy publicity like that; especially with the non-musical-theatre crowd (of which I used to count myself...)

Finally, there's timing. Rent arrives in the same season that saw Evita succeed (the holidays). It's a time when summer is behind us and audiences are looking for quality, for something a little different.

Closing thoughts on Rent and its chances:

Let's face it, audiences today demand more and more realism from their cinema, more naturalism, down to the use of shaky cams and the like. For the movie musical to survive today, what is essentially a "theatrical" form has to adjust and be seen as more realistic, more natural. Rent actually does boast a realistic aspect -- life just isn't all perfect and wondrous and painted Parisian backgrounds. On the contrary, the problems of the dramatis personae are problems we relate to as audience members. So Rent can be darker, which is undeniably the trend in movie musicals now. Earlier musicals such as Dancer in the Dark, The Singing Detective and Todd Graff's Camp - which addressed gay bashing - were willing to embrace this "darkness" we associate with a more realistic and contemporary cinema, so I think the audience may be primed for Rent.

But The Producers is still an easier sell, in my opinion. Audiences will be more easily enticed to a musical that has big laughs in it, that's for sure.

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