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Rent (1996 Original Broadway Cast)

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Album Review

Songwriter/librettist Jonathan Larson's musical Rent caused a considerable stir in the spring of 1996 — a stir that included multiple Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and an open-ended run on Broadway — because it succeeded in synthesizing a range of popular music styles while telling a story full of contemporary concerns including AIDS, drug abuse, homosexuality, and gentrification in witty, moving language. At the same time, it boasted traditional roots in the sense that it was based (very loosely) on the same source as Puccini's hundred-year-old opera La Bohème, Henri Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Bohème. In Larson's retelling, the story concerned a group of young people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan near the end of the 20th century, trying to make it as rock musicians, filmmakers, and performance artists while avoiding being evicted from the apartments in which they were squatting without paying rent (and while also not selling out). Larson, born in 1960, clearly had ingested the whole of post-Beatles pop/rock music along with an array of other musical styles including everything from traditional pop to hip-hop, and he mixed things up freely while holding the score together with some soaring melodies. The scourge of AIDS, and thus death among the young, hung over the show, which made Larson's own death (from an undetected aneurysm) on the night of the show's final dress rehearsal all the more poignant. For audiences, the carpe diem theme expressed in choruses like "no day but today" was inescapably linked to the tragic backstage story. But Rent still would have been a massive hit if Larson had lived; the only difference would have been that he might have had the opportunity to write more shows.

DreamWorks eschewed the usual Broadway practice of hauling the cast into a recording studio on the Sunday after the opening to record a cast album quickly. Instead, the label hired veteran producer Arif Mardin and prepared a thorough two-CD set that brought out the best in the score. Principals Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Idina Menzel all got the chance to immortalize their performances and made the most of it, and the extra length allowed for a full sense of the show's sweep on-stage. It was a sensible approach given that much of Rent was sung, right down to the answering machine messages, and that the songs were interwoven into suites, with musical themes returning frequently. The cast album did not appear until four months after the show opened on Broadway, but when it did, it proved worth the wait. (Concluding the album by having Stevie Wonder sing a version of the show's best-known song, "Seasons of Love," was not a wise decision, however.)

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