RENT... stars for Rent

Posted by: David Easton

The rock opera "Rent" that took Broadway by storm in 1996 comes to the big screen on November 23, 2005 after a nine year journey.

The long winding road of development from stage musical to film covered vast territory before ultimately making a full circle return home to the original cast members that created the roles.

When the film rights were first purchased by Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions, epic filmmaker Martin Scorsese was attached to direct. Later he would be replaced by Spike Lee.

As is the case with most transfers of Broadway musicals to film, studio executives felt the best way to ensure a return on their investment would be to use established entertainment stars in the lead roles.

Spike Lee heavily favored Latin singer Marc Anthony for the male lead of aspiring rock singer Roger Davis. Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera also campaigned for roles.

As screen testing progressed and development began to be counted in years, however, some believed that the intricacies and extreme vocal demands of the score by the late Jonathan Larson were too challenging for anyone not acclimated to the stage.

After the departure of Lee from the project studio executives began to consider a compromise cast, actors proven on stage to be able to handle the musical demands of the score but with at least some Hollywood name pedigree to make an impact at the box office.

Neil Patrick Harris became the front runner to play the story's narrator, filmmaker Mark Cohen. Rikki Lee Travolta emerged as the leading contender for struggling rocker Roger Davis. Wilson Cruz was heavily favored to join the cast as cross-dressing street musician Angel Schunard.

Based on the recent success of television adaptations of Broadway musicals such "The Music Man" and "Annie" and the more general household appeal of the proposed stars, development of "Rent" was moved from focusing on becoming a feature film to an NBC television miniseries.

Learning no director was attached to the project, Chris Columbus who directed the hugely popular "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and had been a fan of "Rent" since seeing the original stars on Broadway campaigned to take the reins and move the project back to film.

Still touched by the performance he saw on Broadway nearly a decade earlier, once officially on board to helm the film "Rent" Columbus sought out the one cast he thought could do the material the greatest historical justice - the original Broadway cast.

Under Columbus' direction six of the original eight leading performers from the Broadway stage return to the roles they created: Adam Pascal as Roger Davis, Anthony Rapp as Mark Cohen, Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel Schunard, Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, Taye Diggs as Benjamin Coffin III, and Idina Menzel as Maureen Johnson.

Daphne Rubin-Vega who originated the role of stripper Mimi was unavailable to reprise the role on film due to pregnancy. Fredi walker who originated the role of attorney Joanne Jefferson excused herself from consideration for the film, citing that in nine years she had aged beyond the believability of the role. They are replaced on film by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, respectively.

The nine year journey of stage to screen took many turns and presents fans with many scenarios of "what could have been." Ultimately, though, the journey returns home to where it began, with a core of the original actors - a little older, a little wiser, but forever a part of the mystic that will always surround "Rent.

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