So how does one get from a place where you have such strong critical opinions of something to a place where you can still love it for what it is? It’s not through a process of trying; at least not in this case. With RENT having fallen in my estimation, I put the show to the back of my mind. In any event, there were other things with which I had to concern myself: the writing of my thesis musical, House of Shadows, as well as the small problem of finding work after graduation.
Then, in 2005, a film version of RENT was released. A monumental flop overseas, the film was on general release in South Africa for a week in 2006 with a few more screenings at that year’s “Out in Africa” film festival. Now the film is no masterpiece by any means. Poor direction mars several sequences in the film and the pace is sacrificed in the decision to make the narrative more accessible for people who don’t like to listen to lyrics in musicals. There are also some bad choices in the adaptation – setting the film in 1989 and the over-simplification of the plot for example. But there are some great ideas – the contextualisation of “Take Me or Leave Me” and the easy fall into dance during the “Santa Fe” subway sequence, for example – and the cast is passionate about the performances they’re delivering and the story they’re telling.
What was most surprising and pleasing was that Angel was at the absolute centre of the film despite the fact that the story ostensibly focuses on Roger and Mimi. When Mark’s film plays during “Finale B” – a moment that has never worked for me in the live staging of the musical – and the last shot is of Angel, suddenly something occurred to me that I had not considered. Perhaps the flaws of RENT were less in the text and more in Michael Grief’s original staging for Broadway, which is the version reproduced on professional stages around the world. Or perhaps both share the blame to a certain extent?
Going back to the main thing that frustrates me about the show – the ending – it occurred to me that just how manipulative the staging of this scene is, for the reasons cited in my earlier blog on the show and how reading Sarah Schulman’s book made me reconsider how I felt about the show. Making it seem as if Mimi dies is a mistake. It is all in a single gesture – when Mimi’s hand falls, the staging destroys the credibility to the show. But if – as in the film – Angel could be placed in the foreground of the material as the epitome of “La Vie Boheme”, the strong figurehead that inspires everyone else to live, to express, to communicate – then there are possibilities in the text that would allow me to make peace, to some extent, with the show as a dramatic text if not in the accepted, “definitive” staging of it.
I was beginning to become excited about RENT once more. And with the opening of the South African production of RENT imminent at the time, the answers for which I was looking were beginning to form in the recesses of my mind.