Based on the opera 'La Bohème', 'Rent' has been around now for over a decade having first appeared on Broadway in 1996. Today, it's more akin to an industry than a single show, with touring companies travelling around the states, a continuing production in New York and now this new 'remixed' version in London.
The show doesn't really have a plot as such, it's more a kind of 'slice of life' which gives us glimpses of what's happening in a New York neighbourhood and the interactions between a group of young people - musicians, dancers, performance artists etc - who are struggling to survive. Some are trying to cope with drug addiction and/or HIV infection and AIDS. Two friends, Mark and Roger, live in an apartment but the rent is due and the landlord tries to force them to disrupt a demonstration on a nearby lot in return for foregoing the rent. Another friend is mugged and subsequently comforted by a street musician called Angel. We see support group meetings, the homeless demonstrating against eviction and the death of Angel. All this is recorded by filmmaker Mark who irritatingly has his camera to hand in almost every scene.
The location for the show is Alphabet City, an area of the East Village of New York, where streets have single letter names. Mark Bailey's white brick set and modernist metal walkway and staircases seem more appropriate to the sanitised world of loft-living stockbrokers, than struggling artists eeking out a miserable existence squatting in accommodation without electricity or heat. It could easily be a TV set for a pop show. An enormous ticker across the stage lists those (mostly famous) people who have died from AIDS over the years, but the pristine environment doesn't reflect the degrading suffering that victims endured in the 1980s and early 90s, nor the despair felt by those who contracted the disease.
Like many operas and a few musicals, 'Rent' is 'sung through', which basically means that there is little or no dialogue. Mark (played by a muscular and clean-cut Oliver Thornton) acts as a kind of narrator filling us in with meagre details about what's happening and who the main characters are. But without interaction through dialogue to help us understand how the characters feel and relate to each other, we're left with just the songs for information. It feels like there's something missing and dialogue would certainly have helped.
The show is at least 30 minutes too long and I have no doubt that some of the 29 songs could be cut and the show would be all the better for it. Apparently, in initial drafts it had over 45 songs which would have made it a marathon indeed. Even so, by the middle of the second half I was, frankly, bored. I felt little or no connection with the characters, found most of their relationships confusingly under-developed, and was tired of the songs that are, for the most part, more or less forgettable. There are a couple of exceptions which have catchy phrases, and there are one or two haunting melodies, but these are gems in a veritable mine of mediocrity. Hovering around outside the theatre after the show, some of the audience were singing a few bars of the same song about the number of minutes in a year - 525,600 if you can't work it out for yourself, more of course in a leap year! I didn't hear any other songs being hummed, sung or talked about on the pavement, indicating that very few of the songs are memorable.
Maybe it's the fact that 'Rent' is an established success that keeps the punters flowing in through the theatre doors. Looking around the audience during the show, I detected that people were attentive, but not really engaged. Though there was some sparse vocal enthusiasm, and the audience clapped along when prompted, I've experienced far more audience involvement in many shows that achieved much less success. No-one got to their feet at the end of the show as is pretty much customary in most musicals these days, and I sensed some disappointment, or perhaps slight bewilderment among the audience.
To give another view, my guest for the evening was a friend from the states who largely dislikes musicals. A senior citizen from San Francisco who's spent considerable time in both New York and Chicago, she loved the set, the songs and the actors. But even her evangelistic enthusiasm was waning in the second half, and doubts began to creep in once she articulated her feelings after the show and, like me, she found some of the songs unnecessary and the entire piece overly long.
I don't doubt the sincerity of writer/ composer Jonathan Larson who sadly died almost immediately after the original opening back in 1996. However, Director William Baker's 'remix' of 'Rent' seems a far cry from the composer's intentions. It lacks the essential gritty reality which even a highly committed cast couldn't counteract. Disappointing.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A strangely disappointing makeover or remix by director William Baker...Enjoy Rent Remixed for its exquisite songs, not its vacuous story. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "They call this "Rent Remixed". I'd dub it "Rent Reduced", in that the late Jonathan Larson's reworking of La Bohème, while never a great musical, has been turned into a grisly, synthetic, pseudo pop concert with no particular roots or identity." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "The songs, apart from a few numbers — notably Seasons of Love and Take Me or Leave Me — are forgettable. The characterisation is slight and the plot lacks focus...Still, Anderson has done a cracking job of funking up Larson’s score, replacing overweening guitar rock with pumping gay club anthems and diva pop, flavoured with rippling keyboards and electronica...Overall, this is a flawed product stylishly repackaged" CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This clinical, cynical, underpowered revival makes its shortcomings all too apparent...But while the singing is strong, most of the acting is abysmal."