September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

Original Broadway Cast

Since its Broadway debut on April 29, Rent has been paid enough compliments to keep the heat and hot water running in the Nederlander Theatre for years to come. The poignancy of Jonathan Larson’s rock opera chronicling the lives of a group of squatters in Manhattan’s gritty East Village was heightened—to some degree overshadowed—by the 35-year-old composer’s death from an aortic aneurysm shortly before Rent began its first run Off-Broadway in January. Happily, the release of this exhilarating two-disc, full-score soundtrack demonstrates that the homage and even the hype were well-warranted.

Based on Puccini’s 1896 La Bohème, Rent serves up a raw dose of pulsating rock and roll with some R&B, gospel, Caribbean flavors and a tango or two thrown in. The vibrant cast (the youngest performer is 22, the oldest, 34) sings with an unguarded passion perfectly suited to Larson’s threadbare but fervent dreamers. Listeners, like theatergoers, find themselves in a decidedly non-Gilbert and Sullivan milieu “where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray.”

Rent’s emotional punch is in fact enhanced by the transfer to disc. Larson’s at once timeless and of-the-moment lyrics (“Will I lose my dignity/ Will someone care/ Will I wake tomorrow/ From this nightmare?”) are delivered in fine, strong voice by the cast members, who, onstage, have suffered noticeable vocal fatigue from the strain of performing eight shows a week on Broadway. The only real clunker is a so-called bonus track, an overproduced additional version of “Seasons of Love,” featuring guest vocalist Stevie Wonder. Unfortunately, the Wonderized rendition—slated to be the first single released from the album—turns Rent’s signature song into a saccharine, ’90s version of “That’s What Friends Are For.” (DreamWorks)

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