Rent (2005)

The main reason the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago worked so well was the way the musical numbers were framed within the imagination of the lead character.

The audience didn’t need to suspend its belief about people spontaneously bursting into song because it had a plausible “out”. And thankfully, the story lent itself well to such a device.

Rent isn’t so easily confined. The original stage production was thoroughly-sung, and a literal translation of that production would have meant two hours of straight song.

So Rent, the movie, turns to dialog for parts of the story and keeps other parts in song. Does it work? Only if you’re familiar with how opera works.

In opera, plot is driven by recitative (pronounced re-SI-tah-TEEV), but characters’ feelings and reactions to situations are expressed in aria.

In Rent, dialog replaces recitative, but the big musical numbers serve as aria. And if Jonathan Larson’s score derives any power, it’s from his strong, melodic aria-styled writing.

“One Song Glory”, “I Should Tell You”, “I’ll Cover You” and “Your Eyes” don’t do much to move the story along, but they do a terrific job of expressing the characters’ emotions. And Larson learned from Puccini — you don’t need to say much in an aria but it had better get the feeling across regardless.

So long as you, the viewer, keeps in mind that dialogue is meant to lead up to the musical numbers, then you should be swept up by the grandiosity and energy that is Rent.

Forget the fact everyone is singing their lines — just listen to the music, and the story falls into place.

Of course, that means you ought to be tolerant of middle-of-the-road hard rock to feel anything for the score. If Death Cab for Cutie and The Arcade Fire are as mainstream as you can get, you may not be the target market for Rent.

I’m no “Renthead” by any leap of the imagination, but when I first heard the original cast recording in 1996, I recognized it was a special score. When I learned most of that original cast were reprising their roles for the movie, I had an incentive to see it.

Because that meant seeing Jesse L. Martin on the big screen. And I’m all about Jesse L. Martin.

It’s nice to see Martin do something other than play Det. Ed Green on Law & Order, and really, that show doesn’t give him nearly enough to do.

In his big solo number, “Santa Fe”, the atheletic Martin uses subway handlebars as gymanstics equipment. The man is limber. About the only thing he gets to do on Law & Order is chase after perps.

His baritone voice sounds luxurious in the movie, as compared to the cast recording, on which he tried to sound rough.

Of course, Anthony Rapp’s Mark and Adam Pascal’s Roger are the two anchors of the film, and their chemistry makes for some powerful duets. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia are fearless playing a gay couple, as are Tracie Thoms and Idina Menzel.

So do I like Rent? Yes, I do. But I liked Rent as piece of music as well. And I could stop myself from being a moviegoer and pretend I was at the opera while I was watching it.

You may have to invest that same kind of effort to enjoy it as well.