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Popular Broadway Musical <i>Rent</i> Hits Silver Screen

The lives and loves, tragedies and triumphs for group of young people in New York City are set to music in a hit stage play that is now on screen, directed by Chris Columbus of Harry Potter and Home Alone fame. Alan Silverman has a look at Rent.

The eight characters stand in a line on the bare stage facing an empty theater, each of them lit by a single spotlight. They sing about "Seasons of Love."

This very theatrical opening acknowledges that the film is adapted from a hit play which opened a decade ago. Loosely based on the opera La Boheme, it's set in the very Bohemian East Village neighborhood of lower Manhattan in 1989 and it follows a very diverse group of friends and lovers, some of them successful, some struggling ... some of them healthy, some of them dying of AIDS ... all of them looking for respect, tolerance and human dignity.

The recurring theme in Rent - "forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way; there is no day but today" - is especially poignant because of the play's history. On the eve of its 1996 opening, writer/composer Jonathan Larson died suddenly and unexpectedly. Continuing the play became a labor of love for the original cast members who had worked with Larson; and director Chris Columbus says that is why he sought them out for the film cast.

"There was something that happened because of Jonathan Larson's tragic death the night before the first preview," explains Columbus. "These guys were forced to bond in a way that's really intensely deep. I first saw the play with the original eight actors and when I was casting it two years ago, when I started to meet them I realized they still had it. They still carried it within themselves. As a director you'll hire two actors who have never met before and you'll say 'oh, why don't you go bowling or have dinner?' hoping to create some sense of chemistry. These guys had it.

"It's really a family. We went through heaven and hell together and you can't go through that many trials and tribulations without getting close to the people around you," he adds.

Jesse L. Martin, well-known now for the TV drama Law And Order, was in the original Broadway cast and reprises the role of Collins for the film version.

"Your cynic would say 'oh, it's so corny ... we love you and love life and live life;' but the truth of the matter is you don't hear that every day," Martin says. "You just don't hear that music at all anymore, whether it be for the stage or the radio or what have you. You just don't hear songs like that anymore, so when you do hear them, after the initial shock of learning they're just talking about love, you kind of get into it. These are songs that you could literally turn to whoever you love and sing them and they'd be thrilled to hear it."

Newcomers to the Rent cast include rising screen star Rosario Dawson: fiery, energetic and heartbreaking as the self-destructive exotic dancer Mimi.

"This girl is 19-years-old and she knows she is HIV-positive; but she's also feeling on top of her world, being high and excited ... running out there and being sexy and young," explains Dawson. "[She faces] That confrontation every day of feeling lonely and wanting to have something beautiful with someone, but knowing that there's an expense there and she doesn't have a lot of time."

At the heart of the story is cross-dressing Angel, played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony for his performance in the original cast.

"I think the themes are universal and it does translate very well. It has done well all over the world - in Japan, Australia, Germany, Singapore," he says. "There's a ghetto everywhere and these themes are all universal. Everyone goes through loss ... struggle ...strives to live a better life ... tries to discover the secret of life, which is essentially 'live in the moment.' So it definitely has translated."

Also recreating their stage roles in Rent are Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. New to ensemble is Tracie Thoms; and much of the film was shot on location on the streets of New York City.