On stage, RENT was a rock opera. It’s unquestionable that it is one: the story is told primarily through a series of episodic and eclectic musical numbers that are grounded in the idiom of popular music. On film, RENT looks like a shaky adaptation of a very mediocre musical play. Anyone who knows me will be able to tell you that I am very frank about what flaws I feel RENT has, but it the potential to be better that that.
Because of the shift in form, several numbers have been cut and a few have been shifted. That is par for the course when it comes to movie musicals. Perhaps what is worse is the attempt to pass off certain sections of the score as dialogue. In these sections, the lyrics are simply spoken – and it sounds weird. This is not merely a case in which familiarity with the source material spoils an appreciation of the adaptation. Ever an ear unfamiliar with RENT can pick out spoken moments in the film that are jarring when they are heard.
Lyrics and spoken dialogue are two completely different things. Lyrics are more specifically constructed that spoken language in musicals. They are often more economical in terms of word usage than dialogue and, because they are poetic rather than prosaic, have a specific cadence when spoken aloud. That is why these lyrics sound so strange when they are spoken as dialogue without any alteration whatsoever. The flaw also makes itself apparent, I suppose, because people tend to forget that although lyrics are specifically crafted in musical theatre, the creation of spoken dialogue is also a skill in its own right. The combination of these two miscalculations is what makes this appropriated dialogue sound forced.
It’s such a pity that nobody working on this film trusted the material with which they were working. There’s a big difference between refining something, or streamlining it to function optimally within the conventions of a different medium, and butchering it completely.