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Catching Up on Rent

Catching Up on Rent

'Musicals so often can be silly and ridiculous and not mean much,' laments Anthony Rapp. That said, the actor notes that he is 'thrilled' to have spent the past decade-plus intimately involved with the rock opera Rent, arguably one of the most meaningful shows in the history of musical theater and unquestionably the one that most directly addresses HIV-related issues.

Part of Rent since its 1996 off-Broadway debut, Rapp originated the role of Mark, an aspiring Jewish filmmaker and one of the show's few lead characters not infected with HIV. In the show--Jonathan Larson's modern retelling of Puccini's classic opera La Boheme--Mark's straight roommate is an HIV-positive former injection-drug user. Another of his best friends is an HIV-positive gay African-American man.

Nine years after first tackling the role of Mark on the stage, Rapp is returning to the character--this time for moviegoing audiences. The long-awaited film adaptation of the production is set for nationwide distribution on November 23.

'It's going to be very true to the spirit, intentions, politics, and characters of the stage show,' Rapp says of the film, directed by Chris Columbus, who helmed two of the recent Harry Potter films. The story changes only slightly, Rapp says--mostly to condense the project from nearly three hours onstage to just over two on the screen.

Whereas Puccini's masterpiece features characters struggling in the face of tuberculosis, Rent is set against the stark backdrop of New York City's bohemian arts world at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Since then, though, the face of AIDS has changed dramatically, Rapp acknowledges. 'The play makes repeated references to AZT,' Rapp says, noting that today's multidrug cocktails were still more than half a decade away.

Because HIV-positive people today have completely different experiences with HIV disease than those of the early 1990s, Rapp says, the filmmakers faced a dilemma. Should they update the film to be more relevant to HIVers in the 21st century, or stick to the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning formula of the original production? In the end, they remained true to Larson's vision, Rapp says, offering up the movie as a period piece.

The movie is set between Christmas Eve, 1989, and the same day one year later. The time frame puts in perspective much of what the musical presents as reality. 'Now HIV is considered more of a manageable long-term illness,' Rapp says. 'Early in the epidemic [as seen in Rent] it was considered a death sentence.'

In addition to affecting him onstage, Rapp says AIDS has affected his life on a personal level. As a gay man, he has always been aware of its presence. 'From a very young age, when I was a young actor, I did a lot of work with actors who later died of AIDS very early in the epidemic, in the early '80s,' he says. 'It's always been part of my awareness.'

But that level of awareness has waned throughout much of the rest of society, Rapp sadly admits. He's hopeful the film can help reverse that trend and educate a new generation about AIDS and HIV prevention. 'People need to continue to think about HIV and be reminded that it still exists,' he points out. 'It's not just a thing of the past. There is a lot of attention to AIDS overseas, which is very important, but there is still stuff going on here, stateside. Hopefully, the film can be a little wake-up call.'

While shooting the movie in San Francisco, Rapp took note of one crew member's optimistic response to the show. 'He kept telling us over and over how much he was falling in love with the material the more he got to know it,' Rapp recalls. 'He said, 'I think this movie is going to be an amazing example of awareness and prevention.' He saw that right away.'

Rapp is confident audiences everywhere will respond similarly to the film, even though it is set about 15 years in the past. At its core, Rapp says, Rentis built on several universal themes, including love, loss, and hope. For example, in one of the most emotional scenes in the show, a main character dies of AIDS complications. The remaining ones are left to grieve and to try to make sense of the event.

Rapp says this particular scene proved oddly prophetic for the show's original cast when playwright Larson died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm the night of the show's off-Broadway dress rehearsal.

'This community of friends in Rent loses a friend, and we as a community of artists had lost our friend and fellow artist,' he says. 'Rent really was brilliant in giving us a chance to grieve and move on, but it also captured all the trauma of that. It's become the living monument to who Jonathan is and was.'

Though Larson never lived to see his masterpiece realized in front of a Broadway audience (it transferred there after its off-Broadway run), Rapp is certain he would be enthusiastic about the play's--and now the film's--opportunity to spread its message. And that message is already expanding beyond the stage production's reach. 'Seasons of Love,' the first single from the film's soundtrack, debuted on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 singles chart in late August. 'I know if Jonathan were here,' Rapp says, 'he would be absolutely thrilled.'

'Seasons of Love,' which assesses the value of one year of life, is only one of the show's many songs tackling AIDS. 'Life Support' sets an AIDS support group meeting to music, while 'Will I?' voices the HIV-positive characters' fears of losing their dignity during their battles with the disease. Even the struggle of serostatus disclosure is addressed in 'I Should Tell You,' which also doubles as a love song.

For Rapp, Renthas been a life-changing experience. Although he's appeared in other films, including Adventures in Babysitting, School Ties, Dazed and Confused, and A Beautiful Mind, and returned to Broadway in the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Rapp says he believes his work with Rent will be 'the crowning achievement of my life. This is just the embodiment of everything I have been. I don't think anything else will ever approach those levels of impact.'

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