Original cast members wanted a movie version that would honor Larson

When it comes to Broadway legends starring in the film version, the rule mostly is it ain’t gonna happen. Ethel Merman never reprised “Gypsy,” Mary Martin was overlooked for “The Sound of Music” and Carol Channing’s only film of Dolly Levi is from TV guest shots. And so it is unusual that eight of the original cast members made the cut for the film version of “Rent.” Only Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi, has been replaced, by Rosario Dawson. The reason: Jonathan Larson’s lyrics specify a 19-year-old for the role.

Otherwise, the “Rent” movie is a reunion. “When we heard it was going to be a film,” says Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who plays Angel, the doomed drag queen, “that was the first question, ‘Will we be hired?’ “

“I was sure we wouldn’t,” says Jesse L. Martin, who plays Angel’s lover Tom Collins. “It was 10 years later, and I was sure they’d go with big names: Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera. They sell millions and millions of albums, and it only made sense Hollywood would put them in there.”

“There had been talk about a film ever since we started doing the play,” notes Taye Diggs, who plays Benny, the turncoat among the show’s bohemians. “Personally, I never thought they’d go with us. The closest we came was Spike Lee” — originally set to direct — “and I remember he had a meeting with all the original cast members, but he didn’t have any real intention of casting us.”

Chris Columbus, however, couldn’t get the original cast’s energy out of his head. “He never made any promises, but he wanted to know if I was still up to it 10 years later, to be that character again,” says Heredia. “I said, ‘You know what? Hire me and I’ll let you know.’ “

Idina Menzel, who reprises the role of performance-artist Maureen, was equally defensive. A Tony winner for her starring role in Broadway’s “Wicked,” she first spoke with Columbus in her dressing room at the Gershwin Theater.

“I said to Chris, ‘Don’t give me a pity movie!’ I can’t believe how egotistical I was, asking Chris how he was doing this. But I felt a kinship with Jonathan Larson when he was alive and even more so now. We feel like vehicles for his work, and it might sound like a cliche but it’s true.”

Diggs, who is now married to Menzel, was equally wary of participating in a movie version that wouldn’t honor Larson. “Before I knew what Chris was going to do with it, it was an issue: I didn’t want to sign on unless I knew that this piece was in the right hands. He gave me some indication by agreeing to use all of us. Luckily, we both did it and it was good.”

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