Of course they wanted the parts. Desperately. But in the laboriously drawn-out process of transferring "Rent" to the big screen, word had filtered to the original cast members of the Broadway musical that the filmmakers -- as often happens in stage-to-movie ventures -- were looking into celebrity power grids of higher voltage.
"We had heard we were going to be replaced with bigger names," says Idina Menzel, a Tony Award winner for her portrayal of the green-skinned witch in the hit musical "Wicked." Overtures were made to brand-name pop stars -- Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Usher among them -- and Chris Columbus, the latest major-league director to be attached to the project, went so far as to sit down with Timberlake.
Menzel braced herself. "I said to my agent: 'Just don't have them waste my time. Don't let them give me a pity meeting.' "
Pity, it turns out, was far from what the director had in mind. Long a fan of the show, Columbus -- director of blockbusters such as "Mrs. Doubtfire," the two "Home Alone" films and the first two "Harry Potter" movies -- ultimately decided that doing justice to "Rent" meant giving the roles back to Menzel and other actors present at the birth.
"It was the power of their relationships that I was taken with," Columbus says. "As I started to meet with the original cast members, I saw that they had created a bond and a kind of chemistry that I've never seen before."
Which is how it came to pass that six of the eight original lead performers of "Rent" -- among them heartthrob Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin of "Law & Order" -- made it into the roughly $40 million movie version of a brash, poignantly melodic rock opera. Based on Puccini's "La Boheme," "Rent" opened off-Broadway early in 1996, moved to Broadway a few months later, copped a Pulitzer Prize and became a touchstone for a younger generation eager for a show it could embrace as its own.
Now, the wisdom of Columbus's choices for the project -- indeed, the choice of Columbus himself -- is being put to the customary box-office plebiscite. With "Rent" opening Wednesday across the country, the musical question of the moment is: Will American moviegoers find room in their hearts for a Lower East Side story replete with HIV-positive lovers and singing junkies? (And with Rosario Dawson -- one of two actors not from the original -- playing an exotic dancer with a thing for handcuffs and heroin?)
"Rent" moves to a cineplex near you after years of false starts and delays, flirtatious interludes with such auteurs as Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, and endless debate over how a gritty musical with little dialogue might be brought to the screen. What seems to have stayed constant was faith in the material's potential.
Jeffrey Seller, one of the stage version's producers and an executive producer of the movie, can offer chapter and verse on how "Rent" got stuck in idle in Hollywood, and the difficulties directors encountered in the effort to reinvent it. "Scorsese admired the piece but didn't know what to do with it," notes Seller, most recently a producer of the Broadway musical "Avenue Q." "The hero here is Chris, because he had a burning desire to make the movie. And he had a vision of how to make it."
That vision will be hotly debated in the coming weeks, especially among the musical's legions of devotees -- "Rentheads" -- who over the years have helped to ensure the show's status as a Broadway phenomenon. "Rent" is the eighth-longest-running show in Broadway history, and since 1996 has grossed $460 million from its various North American productions. And Rentheads attending early film screenings are having a go at the movie online, parsing all 2 hours 10 minutes of it, song by song by song.
Anthony Rapp, who for the movie reprises his role as Mark Cohen, the Scarsdale kid turned downtown documentary filmmaker, says he has come across a lot of naysaying on the Web, "a similar kind of skepticism in the press and online communities," questioning the emotionalism of the film and the contemporary relevance of the story. "Rent" is about young people struggling with life-and-death issues -- but it's also about the need to stay true to a bohemian ideal, to one's artistic soul, to resist the temptation in a materialistic age to sell out.
Is there, perhaps, a perception among the cognoscenti that "Rent" -- under the stewardship of the guy who wrote "The Goonies" -- has gone a bit soft? "There is this thing about this show, that it has always worn its heart on its sleeve," Rapp insists, "and there are people who don't want that emotional content in their art."
Is there also in the portrait of suburban kids squatting in decaying New York lofts and dying of AIDS -- the film opens on Christmas Eve 1989 -- evidence of a piece that dates itself?
"I don't know," Rapp says. "Is losing your friend still relevant? Is HIV still relevant? Is 'La Boheme' still relevant?"
Columbus, too, is keenly aware he's in the hot seat. He got a baptism, he says, with the psychological pressure exerted by deeply proprietary fans during the making of the "Harry Potter" films. In a sense, he explains, "I had to go through the process of 'Harry Potter' to do 'Rent.' By the time of 'Rent,' I learned that I just have to think about the film."
And what that thinking has led to is a fairly straightforward adaptation.
Unlike, say, the Oscar-winning "Chicago," which reimagined the musical numbers of the Broadway version as figments of characters' dreams and delusions, "Rent" takes the view that characters simply go about their lives, open their mouths and music comes out. "People kept saying to me: 'How are you going to get into the songs? What's your device?' " Columbus recalls. His answer was that he wasn't going to have one. He reminded them that audiences have been suspending their disbelief with movie musicals for decades. Remember "West Side Story"? The unlikeliest people, street toughs, warbled and jeted. "It's a language," Columbus argues, "that we understand."
The director says he also understood the importance of remaining true to the blueprint of the show's composer-lyricist, Jonathan Larson, whose own story resonates with the pathos of the work. On Jan. 25, 1996, hours after the final dress rehearsal off-Broadway, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. Months before, he had been waiting tables. He was only 35, and he never knew that he had written one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history.
"One song / before I go," Adam Pascal's Roger, a songwriter, sings at one point. In the musical's most famous number, "Seasons of Love," the ensemble asks, "How do you figure / A last year on Earth?"
Much of Larson's score, with its piercing harmonies, is intact: "Seasons of Love" -- now repositioned, as a prologue -- "La Vie Boheme," "I'll Cover You," "Out Tonight" and "Take Me or Leave Me" made it into the film. (The most prominent and, Columbus says, painful cut was a tender "Goodbye, Love" sung by Dawson's Mimi to Roger; Columbus reports that it will be on the DVD.) The director made other alterations, too, clarifying plot points. Once Larson died, the work was pretty much frozen, albeit still raw, unfinished. Columbus also has converted much of the opera-style recitative to spoken dialogue.
The characters, however, have undergone virtually no metamorphoses. All are instantly recognizable: Mark and Roger, friends who share a grimy loft whose rent -- ah! the title -- they cannot pay. Benny, played by Diggs, their yuppified landlord and ex-pal. Dawson's Mimi, the love interest for Roger who dances for her fixes at the Cat-Scratch Club. Outrageous, mouthy Maureen, portrayed by Menzel, who's loved by Mark but is in love with an uptight lawyer, Joanne (Tracie Thoms). And the big-hearted Tom Collins (Martin), who's hooked up with cross-dressing Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony in the role).
All but Dawson and Thoms, a Baltimore native, have known each other since "Rent's" beginnings. "Rent" was in essence their show-business launching pad, and they remain devoted not only to Larson's memory but also to each other. (Diggs and Menzel especially; they're husband and wife.) When, for instance, Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi, was not cast in the movie, some of the other actors were upset. The original Joanne, Fredi Walker, also was not cast. Columbus says that Rubin-Vega was pregnant and that Walker took herself out of the running.
Still, Martin, who says he was granted a hiatus from "Law & Order" to be in the film, says he phoned Rubin-Vega to get her blessing, sort of. "I had to call Daphne and be sure she was okay with this," he explains. "Mimi belonged to Daphne. She was really upset. It can't be easy. I know she's happy for us, and I know it breaks her heart." (Efforts to reach Rubin-Vega, with the help of "Rent's" Broadway publicity office, were unsuccessful.)
The original cast members are a decade older than when they first inhabited their parts, and returning to those characters was a bit like revisiting a room moved out of long ago. Filming on the streets of New York and on soundstages in California, Rapp felt as if he were living in two eras of his life at once.
"It's sort of like going back in time, going back to where I was," he says of again playing Mark Cohen, a role he slipped into somewhere between 800 and 1,000 times. He has lost track. "I've grown up from that time and Mark hasn't. I didn't know what to expect exactly, but there was this plug and we just plugged ourselves into it. It's literally in our bones."
Sometimes, Rapp notes, going home can be disturbing. Not this time. Doing "Rent" again, surrounded by people he cared about, was "like going home to the warmest, most comfortable, most alive place you can be."