A New Lease on 'Rent'

Greed was good, the homeless were plentiful and AIDS was rampant. Still, deep in the '80s, Jonathan Larson found something to sing about. For "Rent," he took the struggling young artists of Puccini's "La Boheme," set them loose in Manhattan's East Village and wrote them a "Hair"-raising score.

Larson never lived to see his show open; he died of an aneurysm the night before previews began, 10 days shy of his 36th birthday.

Nine years later, "Rent" is still rocking Broadway. Starting Wednesday, it's also a $45 million movie.

Directed by Chris Columbus - a onetime "Harry Potter" helmer and self-professed "Renthead" - it has what few musicals-turned-movies ever have:

Most of the original cast.

And so we get Idina ("Wicked") Menzel as Maureen, a performance artist and bisexual flirt; "Law and Order" detective Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, the gay philosopher; Taye Diggs (Mr. Menzel, and star of "Kevin Hill") as Ben, the yuppie landlord; plus Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal and - as Angel, the transvestite with wobbly high heels and a heart of gold - Wilson Jermaine Heredia.

And to think, Columbus tells The Post, he'd actually considered "'Rent, the Rock Star Version' starring Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Usher."

He pauses, waits for the shock to subside, then laughs.

"I actually met with a couple of those people and with bona fide movie stars," whom he diplomatically declines to name - since they didn't pass the audition.

"Then I started to meet the original cast," he continues, "and it was strange. First, because none of them had aged much in those 8 1/2 years, but also because there was a haunted sense about them.

"I realized that because of Jonathan Larson's death, they shared an intense bond. This show was a memorial to Jonathan, and it was the kind of chemistry directors looked for."

When Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi, the stripper, bowed out because she was pregnant, Columbus reopened auditions.

To his surprise, Rosario Dawson showed up, and proceeded to knock everyone's socks off.

"She came into the room and did two [of Mimi's] songs, and everyone was blown away. When she left, I ran after her and said, 'You've got the part!'

"I wasn't even aware then that she grew up in that neighborhood and she knew those people."

By all accounts, Dawson and Tracie Thoms (cast as Maureen's lawyer lover, Joanne, after the original star, Fredi Walker, passed on the film) fit right in.

"People keep asking if we had an initiation or something, and I wish we could come up with something clever," says Rapp, who looks pretty much the same as he did on stage (only with a less dorky coat) as Mark, the fledgling filmmaker.

"[But] the minute Tracie opened her mouth to sing, 'Seasons of Love' I thought, OK, I think we're fine. And Rosario has such a lovely, smooth, pure tone that blends well with Adam's gravel and grit."

If there was an odd guy out, it was probably Columbus - and Diggs had fun breaking him in.

"We did the funeral scene and it was time to do his close-up," the director recalls. "I yell 'Action,' and suddenly Taye breaks into this hideous, over-the-top performance.

"He's crying and his lip is trembling and I thought, this is horrible. What can I possibly say to him that would even help? Then I looked over and saw Jesse, Adam and everyone laughing hysterically. Taye was playing a joke on me.

"That's the essence of Taye."

Diggs wasn't alone. He and Menzel had fallen in love during the Broadway run and married soon after ("We never saw that coming," co-star Heredia tells The Post), but on screen, as they were on stage, their characters are often at odds.

At one point, she moons him and calls him "the enemy of Avenue A."

"But the minute I yelled 'Cut!'" Columbus says, "she'd jump into his lap! So they seem very much like newlyweds."

Truer to character is the real-life friendship between Rapp and Pascal, who roomed together - along with Martin - while the crew shot in Los Angeles.

"One morning, Jesse came in and said, 'I just saw the biggest fight - Anthony and Adam were arguing over who used more hot water. They were having a true Mark-and-Roger moment!'"

Once Columbus had his cast (and hired a nutritionist to get the thirtysomething originals members looking lean and hungry again) he needed a place to shoot, a very seedy place.

Back when Larson wrote "Rent," says his sister, Julie, he lived in a place very much like the one in the show - a fifth-floor walk-up with roof access and a bathtub in the kitchen.

"He had a parade of roommates," she tells The Post, "and there was a phone booth in the street, where you'd call up and say, 'Throw down the key!'"

It was a place Columbus knew, too, when - as a hungry, young NYU student - he lived in an unheated loft in those gritty, wanton, windshield-wiping New York City days of yore.

Today there's a WiFi cafe‚ or a Starbucks on every corner. What's a filmmaker to do?

"Our mantra was 'More dirt, more garbage,'" says Columbus, whose crew mucked up the East Village and the Flatiron District as much as they dared.

But years of shooting music videos there had spurred Village ordinances against late-night musical playbacks - which is why many of the show's big production numbers were shot on one of Warner's back lots. (A couple exceptions: The rooftop "One Song Glory" shoot and a song set in Tompkins Square Park, which looks pretty much the same.)

Though the streets have changed, the show's messages are the same: Different is good, despair is not: seize the day.

Even so, the cast and crew are braced for a Renthead backlash. Rapp's already entered the fray, having e-mailed a poster of a negative review on a theater chat site

"I wrote, 'I'm sorry you were disappointed. This is what we were thinking when we made those decisions,' and he [e-mailed me] back and said a lot of positive things he hadn't included in his review." Rapp says that when he then asked why the positives weren't in the review, the poster went public, accusing Rapp of unduly influencing Rentheads.

"I understand not everyone will love the film," Rapp says. "Not everyone loved the show." (Look no further than the parody "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone put into the opening of "Team America.")

But Larson, Rapp believes, would have been thrilled.

"I think it might have blown his mind to see us sing his songs out on the streets of the neighborhood he wrote about."

Even if they did have to bring their own garbage.