AIDS Awareness Red Ribbon. ©Alina Oswald.

Article/Film Review: RENT

RENT: Live – 2019
Directed by Michael Greif, Alex Rudzinski
Fox Broadcasting Company

Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Many years ago I went to see the award-winning RENT on Broadway. To this day I still find it an unforgettable experience. I remember that I was moved to tears throughout the performance, in particular by an enigmatic, intriguing character called Angel.

Several years later, in 2005, RENT the Broadway musical was made into a movie, which was also a musical. Luckily, I got to interview members of the cast for A&U, and listen to them talk, among other things, about the signature song, “Seasons of Love,” and explain why “love” is “a fine way of measuring time.”

And so, the other day, when I heard about the most recent production of RENT being aired, live, on Fox, on January 27, I knew that I had to find the channel and tune in. Then it was announced that Brennin Hunt (playing Roger) had injured his foot and, therefore, the show that aired was in part recorded during the Saturday dress rehearsal and live only at the end.

Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revolutionary rock opera RENT opened in 1996, a short time after Larson’s untimely death. RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends living in New York City’s Alphabet City, in a time of AZT, struggling to express themselves through their art and stay alive, while dealing with drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS epidemic of that time. Roger (Brennin Hunt) is an aspiring songwriter who wants to write “one great song.” He meets and falls for an exotic dancer, Mimi, played by R&B singer Tinashe. Mark (Jordan Fisher) captures life around him on film. His ex, Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens) and her girlfriend, Joanne (Kiersey Johnson) try to figure out their new relationship, while professor Tom Collins (Brandon Victor Dumont) finds his soulmate in Angel, played by Valentina, a star of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They struggle to pay rent to their landlord and former roommate, Benny (R&B singer Mario).

In many ways, this most recent production of RENT brings back to life the story of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. And yet, while watching the young performers bring to life Mark, Angel, Collins, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, and Joanne, while surrounded by a young audience cheering them on, I wonder if today’s young audience can truly understand the story unfolding on stage. I wonder about the generational divide, not only related to the way we look at HIV and AIDS, but also to how we interpret, today, shows like RENT, their symbolism and message regarding the epidemic, gender identity, social injustices, and so on.

Watching the performance I can’t help but long for the original show…or even the 2008 Broadway show that I also saw. There are plenty of similarities and subtleties to take us back to the time and place of the original RENT—the music, memorable as always; costumes; and some performances, in particular by Vanessa Hudgens (Maureen), Brandon Victor Dixon (Collins) and Valentina (Angel). And as in the original RENT, in this most recent production, Angel still stands out, as enigmatic, energetic and intriguing as always. What I find different is a positive, promising change in how many of us perceive and understand Angel today, and how we can now better connect with this complex, multilayered character, especially in terms of gender identity and expression.

The highlight of the show happened at the very end, when members of the original cast—including Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin—appeared on stage to join in performing “Seasons of Love,” a reminder of how powerful this show can actually be. That said, I wonder if the new production of RENT is powerful enough to inspire its (young) audience the way the original one inspired its generation. Is this new production of RENT powerful enough to ignite that kind of passion and new conversations surrounding today’s HIV epidemic?

AIDS Awareness Red Ribbon. ©Alina Oswald.
World AIDS Day red ribbon. Also published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine ©Alina Oswald

And here’s my review of original-cast RENT (cca 2004, also originally published in A&U Magazine):

Measuring Life

by Alina Oswald

How do we measure a year in our life? In minutes—all five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred of them?  In moments, relationships, accomplishments…?

The cast of the original RENT, reunited after nine years to play in the film version of the Broadway show, measures a year in love… or “loooove” how Wilson Jermaine Heredia offers a hint of the theme melody when we talk on the phone.  “[Love] is a very fine way of measuring time,” he explains. 

Heredia played the original Angel in the Broadway musical.  This year he plays it again, and brings all the character’s idiosyncrasies, to the screen.  Angel has taught Heredia a lot about the theme of the movie—no day but today—and the importance of living in the moment. 

Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revolutionary rock opera RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends living in the mid-eighties’ alphabet city and struggling to express themselves through their art, while enduring drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS pandemic. 

For those who are yet to see the show, here’s a brief synopsis: Roger is an aspiring songwriter who gets involved with heroin.  He and his girlfriend get AIDS by using dirty needles.  When his girlfriend commits suicide, Roger withdraws himself from the world.  It’s through the character Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer, and the friend Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a professor of philosophy who, after is mugged, is rescued by Angel, his soul mate, that Roger comes out of his shell and realizes that he can still experience life and happiness.

RENT humanizes its characters.  It makes them more tactile, more real,” Heredia comments.  “It’s like you know the people that are on the screen.  You get to feel what the Village felt like.  What it was like to live in the alphabet city.”  

The message of RENT lies inside Jonathan Larson’s words and music that provide characters—and through them, the audience—with the necessary vitality and energy to celebrate their life, their love, and hopes for a new beginning.  But is RENT (the movie) still powerful enough to connect to its audience and send its message of hope?

“I think even more,” Wilson Heredia responds and explains that, on screen, the camera allows the audience to know the characters at a much deeper level and get more emotionally attached to them.  Also, as a movie, RENT will be easier accessible in many theaters all around the world.  It will continue to spread the message of hope and AIDS awareness because, despite modern treatments and medications, AIDS is not gone. 

“AIDS is still a prominent disease [and] people need to realize this [AIDS] awareness,” Heredia concludes.  He believes that RENT has the power to help us do just that.     

Because messages are better sent through music and because music helps us remember better and affects us emotionally, RENT, the movie, is a musical.       

When it comes to music, we all have our own favorite songs.  When it comes to RENT, Heredia’s favorite is “Without You” [sung by Angel and Collins].  “It’s one of the songs that hit you right in the stomach,” he explains when talking about the significance of the song: “Yes, I know that the world keeps spinning, but it doesn’t really matter if I’m dying without you.”

Also, when it comes to RENT, Adam Pascal’s (Roger) favorite song is “I’ll Cover You” [sung by Roger and Mimi at Angel’s funeral].  “I’m somebody who’s very much moved by music and every time I hear this song it moves me to tears,” the actor confesses, “it’s connecting on an emotional level that most songs in life don’t.” 

Adam Pascal played the original Roger and now he is coming to the screen character “ten years older and hopefully wiser,” as he comments.   

Pascal believes that today’s audience—especially the young audience—will better accept RENT and understand its message by becoming part of the movie and the timeframe in which the story takes place.  “I think kids need to understand what [RENT] characters are going through because back then [AIDS] was an immediate death sentence,” Pascal explains. “It’s an important thing for people to realize, while watching [RENT], that it wasn’t that much long ago that this was the case.”

He hopes that the movie will bring AIDS back to the public consciousness and “show people that [AIDS] kills the white kids just like it kills the Africans. It’s the same disease that doesn’t discriminate.” 

The comment triggers a poignant, eye-opening series of observations regarding the pandemic as a worldwide genocide and its effects on First and Third World countries.  “In Africa, thousands and thousands of people are dying from AIDS, but it’s in somebody else’s backyard. We’re not gonna deal with it unless it’s directly affecting us,” Pascal comments. And, by “us” he doesn’t mean just Americans, but people living in all other industrialized.  AIDS is not just the responsibility of the United States to deal with the problem.  This is a worldwide problem.  “I’m amazed at how everyone looks at [the US and asks] ‘how come you haven’t cured it?”  Pascal is intrigued.  “There are lots of other countries in this world that have a lot of responsibility and I don’t see them stepping up to the plate either.  Where is the UK?  Where’s Germany?”  We try to think of other countries and come up with Italy, France, and Japan, to mention only a few. 

AIDS is at the bottom of the list for many developed countries because the majority of the people who are dying from AIDS are African and poor and, as Pascal mentions, “the only time you hear about it or see it is when a news crew goes and shoots some pictures of it.”  Other than that, AIDS is not in the public consciousness, especially with all that’s going on—in Iraq and the rest of the world—that distracts people’s attention. 

From a Judeo-Christian value perspective, we have to do something.  “It’s interesting how people selectively look through the Bible and decide what’s important and what things they choose to ignore,” Pascal comments.  “And those things will change, in given any particular situation.”

Looking at AIDS from a human perspective, the categorization of humans becomes irrelevant. And Adam Pascal’s interpretation portrays the most vivid picture of the pandemic as a threat to our humanity, in terms of our humanity: “If tomorrow aliens landed on this planet, that would completely change the perspective of everybody and all of our various religions and all of our various races and cultures would cease to have the meaning that they have now because we would realize that what we all are human.”

He hopes for RENT to spark enough interest in the disease, enough for people to see what is doing to people in Africa. That’s where the problem needs to be addressed.

“The reason why we shouldn’t ignore [AIDS] is the same reason why we couldn’t ignore Nazi Germany,” Pascal says again.  “We have a moral obligation to stop millions of people from dying.  We can’t stand by and allow this to happen in this world that we share, that we all live on.”   

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