Rent, first staged in 1996, is one of the most successful musicals of the 20th century (and the 6th longest running Broadway show of all time.) Written by Jonathon Larson, the show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and essentially every theater award known to man. Its popularity has grown into an institution and it is a firm part of 21st century pop culture. At the time it was fairly groundbreaking for a frank and gritty portrayal of people living with AIDS.
Beyond the hype is a solid musical story featuring a smooth melding of modern music and traditional show tunes. Larson does a brilliant job of marrying the two; these aren't just show tunes with guitars. Larson's score is truly outstanding and he proves his mettle as a complete songwriter with lyrics that are full of humor and truth and that tell a story that sticks with you.
The big production numbers (“Seasons Of Love,” La Vie Boheme”) get most of the attention naturally, and deservedly so. But by my favorite numbers turned out to be the personal vignettes that reveal the the depth of the characters. “Light My Candle,” “Tango: Maureen,” “Take Me Or Leave Me” and “I'll Cover You” each color the voices with some personality and give them some real dimension.
I'm really not a show tunes kind of guy, despite the fact that I see plenty of live theater. But I've found that this particular recording has presence beyond the stage. Seeing it performed certainly helps, though; I wouldn't recommend running out and grabbing this one having not seen it. The score tells a good story, but the performance adds context you're not going to get from the music alone. Of course, you can also watch the film, which was just fair.
I did listen to the film score and have to say that the film soundtrack is in some ways superior to the original cast recording. The song order is slightly different, which didn't have any impact on my ears, but I did feel the movie score was more polished. No surprise, given it was the same group of performers, with the exception of two, and they'd had ten years of practice under their belts. Purists will want the original cast recording as it's more true to the stage production (right down to the answering machine messages), but you really can't go wrong with either one.