Photo: Ray Mickshaw (Fox)
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January 27th, 8pm, Eastern Standard Time, from here on in Rent: Live shoots without a script. Of the eight live musicals that have now aired on NBC and Fox, Rent is the first one to experience a last minute disaster that totally derailed its production plans. News broke just a few hours before the show was set to air that Roger actor Brennin Hunt had broken his foot at the previous night’s dress rehearsal and that Fox was scrambling to figure out how to modify a live musical with no understudies. In the end, the production went with the back-up plan that was always in place as a worst-case-scenario option: Air the previous night’s dress rehearsal (which was also filmed in front of a live audience) as the main performance. As the cast popped in to inform us during the first commercial break, the show must go on even when the show doesn’t actually go on. To salvage some of the fun of a live musical event, Rent: Live cut to a live feed for its last 15 minutes, which included a final performance of “Seasons Of Love” featuring the show’s original Broadway cast.

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If my Twitter feed is any indication, tonight’s broadcast was a massive Rorschach Test in terms of what people want from a live TV musical. To some, the idea of watching a non-live Rent: Live ruined the entire point of the production. Others assumed that watching a dress rehearsal would automatically mean watching a second tier performance. Personally, I’ve never been super tied into the “live” aspect of these live musicals, especially given how abstract that concept is when you’re watching from home. (If Fox had lied and pretended its dress rehearsal footage was a live feed, I certainly never would’ve known the difference.) And it’s not my experience that dress rehearsals are always lackluster performances. It’s definitely possible that some actors would’ve given better performances tonight than the gave last night, but the reverse could also be true as well.

I do feel really, really bad for the cast, who spent weeks preparing for a live broadcast and then had nowhere to put that energy but a 15-minute finale. But I don’t particularly feel like I was cheated out of a unique experience. The problems that did plague the broadcast—shoddy sound mixing, ill-timed audience reactions, imperfect vocal performances, awkward camera work—have been inherent to all of these live musicals, even the much-beloved Jesus Christ Superstar Live! so I can’t really blame those on dress rehearsal imperfections. While there will presumably be plenty of reviews out there happy to snark on Rent: Live’s lack of preparedness and lack of understudies, that’s not this review. I come to praise Rent: Live, not to bury it.

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Photo: Ray Mickshaw (Fox)

Rent: Live To Tape did what these live musicals are supposed to do—reimagine a beloved musical with a new aesthetic, new performers, and new staging choices. Unlike Fox’s impressive but overly familiar production of Grease, Rent: Live didn’t pull its visuals solely from the Broadway production or from the aggressively mediocre 2005 movie adaptation, although it nodded to both. Instead, Rent: Live served as another parry in the ongoing Fox vs. NBC live musical battle, a battle that has made both networks continually step up their game. NBC pioneered the format with The Sound Of Music Live!, Fox revolutionized it with its expansive staging of Grease, and NBC countered with its own innovative concert staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Rent heavily cribs from the latter, throwing out the 360-degree realism of Grease and Fox’s A Christmas Story Live! for something more abstract.

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Production designer Jason Sherwood created a multi-staged, multi-leveled, scaffolding-filled New York City-inspired playground (which just happened to feature a literal playground too) for the night’s action to unfold upon. It’s a fantastic bit of design, one the camera tried and failed to take full advantage of in some ambitious but sloppy tracking and wide shots. In general, it felt like Michael Greif’s compelling theatrical staging was largely underserved by Alex Rudzinski’s muddled TV direction. And while you could blame that on dress rehearsal flaws, I had the exact same critique of Rudzinski’s camera work on Jesus Christ Superstar Live! too. Even with a whole day to focus on just the final 15 minutes, Rudzinski struggled to get good shots of all the original Broadway cast members in the finale.

Given that just about all of these live musicals have had issues with their camera work, however, I can’t say it felt especially glaring here. It helps that, like Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent is a largely sung-through rock opera, which allowed the show to keep barreling through even the strangest camera choices and audience reaction moments. (The cheering for Roger’s high note during Mimi’s death scene felt especially egregious.)

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Photo: Ray Mickshaw (Fox)

One of my big questions going into tonight’s production was how Rent: Live would update its R-rated source material for network TV, but I’m actually far more impressed by what the production kept (“Sodomy, it’s between god and me”) than what it cut (the word “dildo,” for some reason). In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced more shock and awe during one of these live musicals than the moment I realized we were actually getting a full performance of “Contact,” the sexual anthem I thought for sure would be the first thing to be cut. Indeed, rather than cut any songs entirely, Rent: Live instead just made lots of small, internal cuts to shorten the show’s runtime, which—while somewhat jarring for obsessive Rentheads (R.I.P. to the lengthy food order from “La Vie Boheme”)—were likely imperceptible to more casual fans. Unfortunately, the choice to rush through the show’s few dialogue scenes was less seamless.

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As Harvey Fierstein did in adapating The Wiz for NBC, writer Kristoffer Diaz also seizes the opportunity to make some small yet impactful updates to Jonathan Larson’s beloved but flawed source material. Diaz’s smartest choice is to explicitly make this version of Rent a period piece set across 1991 and 1992. Rent is a very dated show, and it works better when you embrace that rather than try to present it as timeless social commentary. This production even goes so far as to insert some extra historical context about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s. Elsewhere, Diaz gives Angel a little bit more focus in terms of her identity and activism. And he also gives some of the show’s clunkier lines (“think twice before you pooh-pooh it”) an update too.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw (Fox)

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As is usual for these live musicals, the cast was a real mixed bag. As soulful musician Roger, former X-Factor contestant Brennin Hunt brought strong pipes but not much acting range. RuPaul’s Drag Race star Valentina struggled with her vocals and presence in what should be a scene-stealing role as Angel. And singer Tinashe started off strong as Mimi before losing some oomph and vocal power as the night went on. Thankfully, there were some pros around to pick up the slack. Though I was one of the few people not totally won over by his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, I absolutely adored Broadway vet Brandon Victor Dixon’s take on Collins. The show always felt like it was in a safe pair of hands when he was onstage, which was also the case with Kiersey Clemons as Joanne and Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen—two performers who were definitely not phoning in their dress rehearsal performances. Hudgens, in particular, has become a real master of this live TV musical artform.

The highlight of the night, however, was Jordan Fisher as Mark. Having already demonstrated his gorgeous pipes in Grease: Live, this time around Fisher got to show off his wildly impressive dance and movement abilities. The playful, exuberant physicality of his Mark immediately set Fisher apart from any other performer I’ve seen in the role. Fisher was also able to imbue some welcome pathos into his performance, particularly in the second half of the show.

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Photo: Kevin Estrada (Fox)

In the end, Rent: Live was an imperfect but heartfelt production of an imperfect but heartfelt show. Perhaps it drew some new viewers into the Rent fandom, but I suspect that more so than most of these live musicals, this one was for the musical’s pre-existing fans. Rent is a show that’s uniquely important to young theater kids, one with flaws that become more apparent the older you get. But—for this nostalgic Rent fan, at least—it was awfully hard to remain cynical during that big final celebration featuring all of the original cast singing alongside their younger counterparts.

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Rent: Live isn’t the definitive version of Rent, but I don’t think it set out to be either. Fox’s version of Rent is—to quote David S. Pumpkins—“it’s own thing.” This live production can now stand alongside the original Broadway production, the 2005 movie, the countless regional and college productions, and the infinite versions of the show that exist inside the minds of everyone who’s listened to the cast recording—all of which make up the mythos that is Rent. Part of loving Rent is being a part of the community that loves Rent. Despite its production snafus, Fox brought that community together for a night. I, for one, was happy to spend a couple of hours back in a world where everything is Rent.


Stray observations

  • For those wishing tonight’s production was just a recording of the Broadway musical, that’s actually already out there! It’s called Rent: Filmed Live On Broadway, and you can purchase it on all the major streaming platforms.
  • I enjoyed Brandon Victor Dixon’s performance of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” but it also felt like he had set himself a challenge of not singing any of the song’s original notes.
  • I was very charmed by Mark’s classic sweater being one of the garments Angel rejected in “Christmas Bells.”
  • My favorite production design detail was the way that piece of scaffolding became an elevator for Roger and Mimi in “I Should Tell You.”
  • Turning “What You Own” into a rock concert performance really undersold the emotional arc of the song (a.k.a. the climax of Mark and Roger’s show-long arcs).
  • On the other hand, I loved the decision to turn “Santa Fe” into an ensemble number. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s innovative work really shone through there.
  • Kudos to Rent: Live for managing to acknowledge summer, which I feel like very few productions of Rent do!
  • As the pre-taped broadcast aired, the cast actually performed a very loose run through of the show leading up to the live finale. Vanity Fair has more information and a collection of tweeted videos from audience members in attendance. The official Rent: Live Twitter account has also been tweeting out videos from the “cast concert,” which honestly looks like it was a lot of fun:

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  • Okay, Rentheads, which little cut moments did you miss the most? I’m bummed we didn’t get Roger’s full, “Oh god, find a candle” line in “Finale A” because I’ve always found it impossibly tragic. Also I missed the short, explosive exchange in “Goodbye Love” before “I’ll call, I hate the fall.” And where was Collins’ “Angeeeeel, indeed” line?!?!

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