CD Review: RENT (Original Soundtrack of the Live Television Event)

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by Tony Frankel on March 18, 2019



Rent has a romantic history: Jonathan Larson, its author and composer, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on Jan. 25, 1996, 10 days before his 36th birthday and the day before the musical’s first preview performance Off-Off-Broadway. Larson’s score is a mix of rock, rap, and gospel, the best-known number being the recurring “Seasons of Love.” In a matter of months the show had transferred to Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and ran for more than 12 years. A film producer walked up to me at intermission when I saw it on Broadway: “Do you think it’ll make a good movie?” he asked; “I’m still trying to figure out if it’s a good musical,” I answered.

But with Larson’s death, the musical was frozen — as is that dull film version. Revivals and national tours keep going based on its fame and its groundbreaking treatment of people with AIDS, queers, and the disenfranchised denizens of the East Village scene. Now comes the CD of the TV soundtrack of Fox’s Live Event (well, not quite live; one of the lead actors broke his foot, so the nation saw a taped dress rehearsal). It has some good additions — especially in Stephen Oremus’s arrangements and orchestrations — but it lacks the bite of the other recordings. It’s certainly not hate-worthy, but many in the cast are pop performers, not actors, and it sometimes shows — there’s a dearth of emotion, but plenty of vocal pyrotechnics. The worst offender is the recording of that millennial audience, hooting and shouting inappropriately as people suffer on stage, robbing the album from breathing when it needs to. And it’s a shame that even with producer Marc Platt (father of Ben from Dear Evan Hansen) working with Larson’s estate, the minor changes don’t helps the show’s dramatic glitches.

The musical is based on Puccini’s La Bohème, shifting the time and scene from nineteenth-century Paris to New York City’s dilapidated East Village circa 1990. Like the opera, it portrays a group of young people living a bohemian life as society’s outsiders. They exist in squalor and poverty, but they have bonded into a community, though often a contentious one. The narrator is an independent filmmaker and squatter named Mark (Jordan Fisher), who is threatened with eviction by ex-friend and owner Benny (Mario). The chief characters are Mimi (Tinashe), a druggie dancer, and Mark’s roommate Roger (Brennin Hunt, channeling the original, Adam Pascal), a composer who expects to die of AIDS and desperately wants to write one great song as his legacy. They are joined by Tom Collins (Brandon Victor Dixon), a gay anarchist professor, and his lover, a drag queen named Angel (Valentina), and lesbian lovers Joanne (Kiersey Clemons, who has a great duet with Fisher in “Tango: Maureen”) and Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens), whose Broadway career shows in the best cover of Maureen’s performance art, “Over the Moon,” that I’ve ever heard. (I can’t help but notice that three of the leads go by one name: Tinashe, Mario, and Valentina … Sting. Madonna, Cher, Bono, or Björk they ain’t.)

Rent has been called the Hair of the Nineties, an unfortunate comparison: Rent deals with a narrow group of characters locked into a small area of New York City, while Hair encompasses the entire country during the Vietnam War years; plus, Hair’s music is more varied, and its characters better-rounded and more entertaining. Yet it’s easy to understand why Rent attracts such a youthful audience. All those characters living free of humdrum responsibilities must look enticing to youthful patrons leading earthbound middle-class lives, even as the characters have gotten themselves into a bad scene with sex and drugs. Youthful audiences might romanticize the lives of those East Village free spirits, but I doubt that many of them would really want to change places with anyone on stage. Rent is very much a product of its time, and if not dated, its urgency has faded. I respect Rent, and — except for the damned applause and whooping — can tolerate this TV recording. But I still don’t love it.

photos by Ray Mickshaw/Fox

Original Live Soundtrack of the Fox Live Television Event
Sony Masterworks Broadway | 2 discs | 127:33 | 44 tracks | released March 1, 2019
available at AmazoniTunes, and Masterworks Broadway

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