Receiving an eviction notice after missing a year's worth of rent payments shouldn't be surprising. In fact, most of us would expect one after only a month or two of failed dues. But for the tenants of a decaying apartment building, the notice is enough to incite a riot. Lighting fire to a pile of flyers, they set the streets ablaze by throwing the burning papers out the window all while singing out their discontent.
So starts Rent, the musical tale of a year in the life of eight bohemian New Yorkers who somehow eek out an existence in the city's East Village. Most of them don't have regular work. Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) is an ardent filmmaker who wants to record the plight of the homeless on his block, but doesn't have a venue to showcase it in. Toting around his handheld camera, he also documents the comings and goings of his friends. He lives with his roommate, Roger (Adam Pascal), an emotionally dead songwriter who has shut out life since his girlfriend died from AIDS. Downstairs lives Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a drug-addicted 19-year-old exotic dancer who dresses in minimal outfits and plies her wares nightly in a strip joint. Mark's friend Tom (Jesse L. Martin), a computer whiz, is recently back in the neighborhood. He and his drag queen lover, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), are passionate, physical partners who attend life support classes for HIV victims at a local community center.
Meanwhile, Mark's former girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) has dumped him in favor of a highly turbulent, sexual relationship with Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a Harvard trained lawyer. Only Benny (Taye Diggs) doesn't hang out with the group anymore. He married, moved out and now works for the man who wants to renovate the dilapidated complex.
Full of angst and aversion for corporate life, the film's characters are indisposed to anything that hampers their free spirited lifestyle. Maureen, the flirtatious performer, struggles (and fails) with the idea of saving her kisses and affections for just one person, male or female. Mark feels confined by the demands of a job even if it offers him a chance to tell his stories.
As to be expected, much of the story's dialogue is revealed in song. Regrettably, these gifted vocalists project their voices like they are still standing in front of a live audience. Belted out at full capacity, the numbers offer little variety in volume or dynamics. Yet from an adaptation standpoint, the long-running play seems to successfully leave behind the confines of the stage and move into actual settings in the city.
Dealing with mature themes, the film has scenes of heavy drug and cigarette use, and portrays addicts shooting up. Dying HIV positive patients battle with the uncertainties and fears of the ravaging disease, and find themselves losing the war. Strong profanities, crude hand gestures and frank sexual comments are included in the script along with sensual interactions between the characters.
Depicting freedom of creative license, unfettered love and the absence of the daily grind as the ultimate form of personal liberty, the play may misguide young viewers by promoting the belief there is no day but today. The tragic realization is that today's decisions do affect tomorrow. Whether or not these characters connect their choices with the consequences, they'll still have to foot the bill.