This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Jonathan Larson lived only long enough to write one musical, but even though that show opened almost ten years ago, it's still running on Broadway today.
Rent, a rock musical that updates Puccini's La Boheme from the Parisian belle --poque to Manhattan's AIDS epidemic, was written and subsequently marketed as a show that would make the MTV generation take notice of the American musical.
After 4,000 performances on Broadway-and countless touring shows here in Los Angeles and elsewhere-obviously Rent has lots of young fans; but the show has not revived musical theater in a way that many anticipated.
Seeing the new film version of Rent is a good reminder of why Larson's music hasn't crossed over and appealed to people weary of Broadway. Quite simply: Rent is not a rock musical. It's rock only in the sense that say Jesus Christ Superstar is rock-that it favors electric guitars and drum beats instead of strings and horns.
Larson's music is thoroughly old fashioned and rooted in the American musical idiom, which means that fans of rock music-in 1996 or today-have always heard it as pass--.
Because of this, the fact that the film has taken so long to come out was in some way a blessing. Larson's music no longer has to feel fresh, it simply has to relate the spirit of its 1990's setting. While real East Village hipsters in the 90's may not have actually listened to a song like "Seasons; of Love," the passing of time allows us 21st century listeners to suspend our disbelief and imagine they did.
In this way, the film of Rent holds much potential. Like Chicago and Cabaret, two successful filmed musicals made long after their shows' Broadway runs, Rent could improve on the original source material, using a mix of innovation and nostalgia to make the work more sophisticated and relevant.
Unfortunately though, the filmmakers-while staying admirably faithful to Larson's work-have failed to reinvent the show in any way. What Rent needed was a modern day Richard Lester, but it didn't even get a modern day Robert Wise. No, instead Rent got Chris Columbus-a reliable Hollywood hack who makes warm, user-friendly fare like Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone.
Amazingly, Rent is not a train wreck on the order of Hello, Dolly! or Paint Your Wagon (the bloated films that killed off the Hollywood musical) but Columbus' only virtue as a director is to get out of the way and let the original cast members do their work. They perform admirably, as they did on Broadway, but a filmed musical needs a strong cinematic vision. Columbus has none, and a televised number on the Tony Awards broadcast is more cinematic than this Rent.
Though muffled in this film of Rent, the power that breaking into song can hold bursts from the stage in Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM!, an unfinished autobiographical work that was put together five years after the composer died.
After runs in New York and London, tick, tick...BOOM! comes to Southern California in a slick, spunky production that die-hard musical fans disappointed in the filmed Rent will want to investigate.
tick, tick...BOOM! is an exercise in musical navel gazing, but it is also a true expression of faith in American musical theater. It's about a composer who wants to write a musical that will change the world, and since the main character of the piece went on to write Rent, some will see tick, tick...BOOM! as prophetic.
As someone who feels that Rent didn't quite change the world, tick, tick...BOOM! seems more like taxidermy than prophesy. That said, the 90 minutes spent with Larson's juvenilia is more interesting and entertaining than much what's currently on Broadway. Such is the state of musicals today. At a time like this, tick, tick...BOOM! is welcome, not simply as reminder of what Jonathan Larson could have been had he lived to see Rent's success, but as an inspiration to future Larsons who, one can only hope, are out there.
tick, tick...BOOM! runs through December 18 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. The film version Rent is in movie theaters everywhere.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.