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Prepare yourself: this just might be better than the original.
on October 1, 2005
Right from the beginning, this is the same "Rent", but different. And yes, better.
Somehow, Chris Columbus has taken a beloved, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical, a deeply personal and heartfelt rock musical twist on "La Boheme", and improved it.
I know what you're thinking. It's not possible. I didn't think so either.
But just go with me for a second here. It's obvious he loves this piece. He treats it with such affinity and respect, yet adds (or subtracts) things until we have this only-slightly stream-lined powerhouse of a musical. The fat has been trimmed, and what's left is lean, powerful, emotional, gutsy...as a card-carrying Rent-head, I was blown away.
It opens with "Seasons Of Love", revealing this exquisite new recording to be full of detail and clarity. It's like a layer of grime has been scraped from the version you are all familiar with. The vocals are clear, the instrumentation vivid and precise. That plaintive piano motif sounds so perfect; it's like the sound of a heart breaking just a little.
For those of us who have memorized the Broadway soundtrack, that song being first isn't as jarring as you'd expect; when the next song "Rent" comes crashing in, all sense of order is restored. The guitars are harder, the drums thundering in spectacular fashion. Some of the spoken bits are excised from the inner parts of the song, which is perfect. In fact, most of the expository fluff has been trimmed, and all for the better.
And remember, I love the original. Passionately.
We shift unexpectedly to "You'll See", with all the interleaving vocals perfectly clear and evocative. Taye Diggs performs here with assurance and flair. He takes a little piece that moves the story along and infuses it with some soul.
That's one word that I kept thinking of while listening to this for the first time: soul. The vocals here are filled with such heart and depth, it's as if a new soul has inhabited Jonathan Larson's already soulful lyrics. The experience of the cast members, both in knowing these characters inside and out, and in the development of their own talents, adds a new dimension to this work. The highs are higher, the lows profound. They are acting and singing on a level an order of magnitude higher than their previous iteration.
"One Song Glory" is a showcase for a solo Adam Pascal. The tempos are a little different that the original; the fast sections drive more...the slower ones lope along amiably.
"Light My Candle"...hooboy...Rosario Dawson leaps out of your speakers here, in a duet with Pascal that will make your speakers generate heat. If you have headphones on, you'll feel your ears warm. Comparing her to Daphne Rubin-Vega is pointless but unavoidable. Dawson's voice is warmer, more seductive. Vega's is edgier and more coquettish. Apples and oranges. I eat both. When Rosario brags about her posterior here, I became pleasantly uncomfortable.
Up to now, I haven't missed any of the "tune-ups" and "voice mails" from the original, and "You Okay Honey?" I'm sure will manifest itself some way in the film. It's where Angel and Tom Collins meet.
On this record, we find Angel first on "Today 4 U" It's a much more energetic and musical version than before. Also, for those of us who know every line, there's a tantalizing switch from "Christmas Eve" to "Christmas Day" in one key line at the beginning of this song which piques my curiosity to the alterations to come in the film.
"Tango: Maureen" shows that newcomer Tracie Thoms can not only fill some shoes, she can create her own, thank you very much. She's perfect. And Anthony Rapp inhabits Mark as no one else can. It's him. This song, with the additional horn orchestrations, is another incident where it's appearing this "Rent" is trying to improve across the board on every aspect of the "old" one, while not changing anything important.
"Life Support", a minute-long snippet, is again, more full-bodied than the original, but shorter.
"Out Tonight" is the song where every Rent fan will be waiting to see if Rosario Dawson can compare to Daphne. Here, she can't. Vega owned this song. Seeing her do it live was like watching somebody set off fireworks indoors. That came across on the cast album. But Dawson does perfectly fine here...I can't wait to see her do this in the movie. I love the backing band here...they sound great. Throughout this soundtrack, the musical accompaniment to the vocals is faultless. Unimprovable.
Being blunt: they're freaking awesome.
"Another Day", Roger and Mimi's spat song, is fairly unchanged. Pascal and Dawson sound great, particularly Dawson...she gives a "real"-sounding, unaffected performance. And the ensemble ending is still spine-tingling...that last "No day but today" still gets me.
"Will I" benefits from improved production. By now we've lost things like "On The Street" from the original, and nothing feels missing.
The highlight song pair, "Santa Fe" and "I'll Cover You" show how Jesse L. Martin simply NAILS Tom Collins. His character shines through, yet his voice has aged so wonderfully that THIS will be the definitive Tom Collins. He lets his sweet, soulful voice fly unfettered here, and it's astonishing. Wilson Heredia, for all intents and purposes, will be the only "Angel" anyone needs ever to know. He imbues warmth and intelligence to a character that could have easily been either too saintly or too cliched.
The songs referred to as "We're Okay" and "Christmas Day" are gone (again, I can't wait to see how they spin this in the film) and we head straight into "Over The Moon", Idina Menzel's loopy performance piece. It's a bit odd out of context, but she's game and belts it out without a hint of inhibition. Make sure you listen past the end of the song...you'll hear this one man yell out "Moo!" and the band comes rocking in as if Green Day suddenly showed up.
Disc two opens with the death of the Akita, Evita, and "La Vie Boheme". Some of the vocal asides are missing, but you'll only notice if you're a Rent addict like I am. I noticed, and I didn't care a whit. Once that sinuous piano bass line came in, I was lost.
Then, my first surprise. At the end of "La Vie Boheme", when Roger asks Mimi, "You?" and she responds, "Me. You?"...I suddenly and spontaneous wept. I was so involved with this recording...and mind you...I knew this line was coming...that I felt the tears rise, with one spilling over on my cheek.
I was totally won over by this new recording, and willfully gave myself over to it at this point. "I Should Tell You" again shows how Pascal and Dawson really seem to work well together.
"La Vie Boheme" returns, like a shot of adrenaline, just like in the original. I still admire the line, "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation."
We get another snippet of "Seasons of Love" here, and then move to "Take Me or Leave Me", the show-stopping number between Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms. To all the Menzel fanatics out there (and yes, I'm a big Wicked fan), she's actually better here. She's flat-out incredible, and Thoms matches her step-for-Diva-step. "Kiss Pooky"...BIG laugh here.
Clearly, there's a lot of exposition happening between some of these songs, because we now arrive at an aching "Without You". A bit more uptempo than before, and missing Vega's raspy vocals, but benefitting from Dawson's earthier tones.
My heart broke hearing Martin's "I'll Cover You" eulogy...I love the gospel tweak, as I do Martin's alterations. He is so good...the soaring ending will leave you spent. Leaving his voice unadorned at the end is an elegant stylish choice.
"Halloween" allows Rapp a chance to shine...he's the relatively stable center of the show, and this again is "better" than the Broadway version. Maybe because HE is.
"Goodbye Love" has all the cast members emoting angrily at the beginning, moving through various operative "movements" until ending with a sad, little exhalation.
"What You Own", the bookend to Mark and Roger's "Rent" duet, finds Rapp and Pascal meshing their voices better than they ever have...
...by this time, we've skipped various "voice mails" and the "Contact" song, but it's somehow for the better...
"Finale A" is recorded "close-miked", as if Roger is speaking right into Mimi's ear, and this is what you'd hear. Again, a nice stylistic choice. "Your Eyes" still isn't the "all time greatest song that I've waited my whole life to write" that it's supposed to be. Here, though, it becomes Roger's intimate declaration of love for Mimi, and it works.
"Finale B" just soars. You can clearly hear each individual cast member chime in here and there, the band amping it up chorus after chorus, reaching a dizzying height with that final "No day but today" line.
I was sad it was over. Really.
But there's an additional song..."Love Heals", something Larson was working on, and now finished as an ensemble piece for the cast members. It's a bit of a mish-mash, lots of melodies, lots of tempos, lots of different kinds of stuff all put together.
It might not be the greatest song, but it acts as a valentine to Larson, and to diehard Rent fans, as we get to hear our beloved characters "come back" for one more song.
We still have two months to go before the film, but this record goes a long way in alleviating any concerns we Rent-heads may have had about the movie.
We don't have to worry if it's gonna be any good. Based on this, not only will he keep the Rent faithful happy, he will show the rest of the world what we've known all along.