But perhaps there is no more important family in regard to Rent than Larson's own, who have been the keeper of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical's flame for the past decade and are strongly supportive of the film version that bows on 2,500 screens across the country on November 23. Directed by Chris Columbus, Rent stars original cast members Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, and Anthony Rapp, along with newcomers Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms.
"One of the central themes of Rent is not to choose fear," says Larson's sister, Julie. "That was a motivating factor for us in deciding to take a chance and see if the show could be translated to another medium." Concern that Larson's vision would get lost in translation was one reason why so many potential directors, including Spike Lee, were attached to the project at different times. But the man who made it happen was Columbus. Though the guy who directed the Home Alone series and the first two Harry Potter movies might not have initially seemed to have the right sensibility to direct this scrappy tale of "la vie boheme" in the East Village, he turned out to be the right man for the job.
"I've been waiting nine years to do this movie," Columbus says. "I saw the show in 1996 with the original cast and I never experienced that kind of emotion in a theater before. I went back five days later and saw it again. I was obsessed. This movie is very personal for me because I lived in Manhattan for 17 years. I lived in a loft; I knew all these people when I was struggling at NYU; I knew the world of musicians and actors and artists." Nonetheless, like Lee before him, Columbus didn't initially intend to use the original cast for the film -- primarily because the conventional wisdom was that these now-thirtysomething actors were too old for roles. At one point, pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera were under serious consideration for the leads. "Chris wanted to meet young talent," says producer Michael Barnathan, "so we met everybody in New York and Los Angeles who could sing. But Chris felt that something was missing. He wasn't quite sure what it was, but he just didn't feel what he felt when he saw the show."
Some of the better-known cast members had already given up on being asked to re-create their roles, including Martin (Tom Collins) and Menzel (Maureen). "I was, like, 'Tell Chris Columbus that he does not need to waste my fucking time with a pity meeting,' " says Menzel, who won the 2004 Tony Award for Wicked. "I know I'm over thirty. I don't want to get my hopes up." Nonetheless, she and Diggs (Benny), her husband, had deep discussions about what to do should they be offered the film. "I didn't want to sign on unless I knew that this piece was going to be in the right hands," says Diggs, who has gone on to major film and television stardom. When he saw an early script, which was very different than the one that eventually got filmed, he had serious doubts about becoming involved. "That script kind of freaked me out, so I didn't know if I was going to do it," he says. "But we agreed that it would be good for Idina's career to do the movie regardless of whether I was in it or whether it was going to be good or not. Luckily, we both said yes."
Once Menzel got the job, however, she was determined that Columbus be faithful to the original Rent. "I can't believe how egotistical I was sometimes," she says now. "I started asking him things like, 'How are you going to do it?' I just wanted to make sure he understood it, and. we kept him on his toes to the last day of the shoot. We all feel a kinship with Jonathan, like we need to be his vehicles for his work. Rent has changed our lives. I thought it was a once in a lifetime thing the first time it came around. For this to happen again -- I don't know what I did to deserve it."
Rubin-Vega was replaced by Dawson, a rising stage and film star. Columbus had no idea if she could sing or dance when he called her in, but once she finished her audition, he and Barnathan felt there was no question that she was the right choice for Mimi. "She walked out of the room and we looked at each other," says Barnathan. "Then we both ran after her into the hallway and told her she had the part. We didn't call the studio, we didn't call the Larsons. Chris was so confident; it was one of those great magical moments when you're casting."
Dawson brings her own authenticity to the film. "I grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side," she says. "My mom was so much of what Mimi was. We moved into a building with no heat, no water, no electricity. She became a plumber so that she could put in the sewage lines. My dad did construction. We had plastic for windows. There was a plywood door with a chain on it. There was a big huge gaping hole in the floor, and an extension cord went out the window to the building across the courtyard for the one refrigerator that we had for the entire building. For my parents, that was better than living down the block in the slumlord apartments". But when Rent opened on Broadway, Dawson didn't want to see it: "I knew it was about this bunch of bohemians living in the Lower East Side in squats, struggling, starving, and dealing with HIV -- and I didn't see that there was anything there to sing and dance about. I was actually quite insulted about it. But when I finally did come across the recording, which my uncle had, I was so moved by the articulation of these characters. I found out how beautiful and respectful the show was."
Thoms, who plays Joanne, first saw Rent in 1997, when she was taken by a boyfriend who wanted to impress her with Broadway tickets, He impressed her plenty. "It became my mission in life to be a part of Rent," she declares. Talk about mission accomplished: Thoms was given the lead vocals in "Seasons of Love," which opens the movie. (Menzel jokes that she's glad Thoms got to sing that part instead of her since Thoms will have to hit those high notes at 7am when the cast performs on all the morning television shows.)
While there may be some backlash from fans over the changed placement of "Seasons of Love" or the cutting of several major songs from the show (such as "Contact" and "Goodbye, Love"), Julie Larson stands behind Chris Columbus's vision. "I had to really let go of the stage play," she says. "I think this is the next part of the journey." Indeed, it appears that the entire Larson family --blood relations and others -- is thrilled with the final product. "I think Chris has captured Jonathan's dream," says Larson's father, Al. "This is the picture Johnny would have made had he lived."