Set in the late-'80s at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Rent took up residence on Broadway in 1996 after racking up one accolade after another, including a Tony for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
It wasn't only critics who cheered. The production inspired so many repeat attendees that they earned a nickname Rentheads. Nine years after its debut, the play, which was loosely based on Puccini's La Boheme, is still going strong at Broadway's Nederlander Theater.
And now, Rent has a new lease on life. A long-anticipated film version is set to open Nov. 23 on more than 2,500 screens nationwide.
Times have changed since 1996, though, leaving some to wonder if Rent is still in season. Is a movie musical about AIDS, diversity and a bunch of East Village bohos still relevant in 2005?
''A number of studios didn't want to do the film because they believed it was dated,'' relates director Chris Columbus, who is best known for the Harry Potter and Home Alone franchises. ''They actually told me that AIDS isn't an issue anymore. In fact, AIDS is a global pandemic.
Written by Jonathan Larson, who died on the eve of the play's first preview, Rent revolves around a cross-section of characters of different races, ethnicities and sexual preferences. Together, the eight major players share a uniquely strong bond of friendship and love. The lineup includes: Anthony Rapp as Mark, a struggling filmmaker; Idina Menzel as Maureen, a bisexual performance artist dating a lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms); Adam Pascal as Roger, an HIV-positive rock musician in love with Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an addict/stripper who lives downstairs; Taye Diggs as Benny, a real-estate mogul; and Jesse L. Martin as Tom, a professor who falls hard for Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen with AIDS.
As far as Rapp is concerned, the movie's message of acceptance is evergreen. ''I grew up in the small town of Joliet, Ill. and, as a gay teenager, I needed to see my life mirrored back to me,'' he says. ''I believe in my heart that there are people in small towns across America who need to see Rent.''
On its way to the silver screen, Rent went through many incarnations. Originally bought by Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions, the film was scheduled to be directed by Martin Scorsese. A script could never be ironed out to Scorsese's satisfaction and the project fell to Spike Lee. It looked as if Rent's time had come and gone. Then Chicago and Moulin Rouge hit the right notes at the box office and musicals were hip again.
For the movie adaptation, Columbus went back to the original eight actors. Only two Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi) and Fredi Walker (Joanne) were replaced for the film version.
''These actors were together on stage for 16 months and they were together when they found out that Jonathan died. They had a communal experience, and I realized that that connection was key.''
Initially, there was some concern that actors like Rapp, 34, and Heredia, 33, were too old to play footloose twentysomethings. But after meeting the youthful Rapp, Columbus' worries melted away.
Once he was cast, Rapp quickly phoned up his friend Adam Pascal with some advice. ''I told him, 'Whatever you do, Adam, try to look young,' '' recalls Rapp with a laugh.
Heredia, who had retired from acting for a year and was working in a video store was reluctant to step back into his high heels. ''When we had the initial meetings, Chris said, 'Are you still up to it?''' recalls Heredia, who won a Tony for playing Angel. ''I said, 'Hire me and I'll let you know.' ''
Menzel and Diggs, who met during the Broadway production of Rent and who married in 2003, agreed that if only one of them got cast in the movie, the other would be understanding about being passed over.
''The movie is forever, and it's a miracle we got asked to do it with so many of our friends,'' notes Diggs.
Newbie Rosario Dawson wasn't well-versed in the play. Even though she grew up in an East Village squat, surrounded by dozens of starving artists and musicians, she initially felt no kinship with the material.
''I remember hearing about Rent back in 1996 and thinking, 'Okay, it's about a bunch of bohemians living on the Lower East Side in squats, struggling, and dealing with HIV? Hmm, I know that scene really well and I don't see what there is to sing and dance about.' I was actually quite insulted by it.''
After discovering the cast album in her uncle's CD collection, Dawson changed her tune.
''I discovered it was a human story about relationships,'' says Dawson. ''It wasn't about exploiting the characters. Jonathan wrote the play to celebrate his friends, and I think that comes across even in the midst of all the heartache, death and sadness.
These friends didn't just survive together, they thrived together and that's a beautiful thing.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun