Cast injuries and arbitrary changes to the source material left this not-quite-live performance of the Jonathan Larsen musical more than a little wanting.
When Rent premiered in a 150-seat theater in 1996, it took the theater world by storm. The musical about bohemian life in New York’s East Village felt timely, almost urgent, and ushered in a new generation of theatergoers. Twenty-two years later, the production has been re-staged as part of the latest live TV productions by Fox, Rent Live.
Most critics of Rent agree that the story has not withstood the passage of time. In the 20-odd years since it premiered, the urgency of communities ravaged by the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s has given way to a world where people infected with HIV can live long, healthy lives, and the development of drugs like PrEP (a sponsor of last night’s broadcast) have a 99% success rate in preventing HIV/AIDS. Rent’s characters were neither pure, nobly suffering innocents nor selfish hedonists who “deserved” their fate. Instead, they were messy, sometimes foolish, and sometimes sympathetic, and going through something terrible right in front of our eyes.
In the ensuing decades since Rent first premiered, the urgency and alarm of the story have faded, and many began to see it as little more than a collection of powerful rock songs that function just as well as concert rock or karaoke than staged theater.
Rent! Live is the latest in network TV’s latest trend of staging big, glitzy live performances of musicals with all-star casts after Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar and, God help us, Peter Pan. Last night, fans tuned in to see how FOX’s TV adaptation would tackle the story and spirit of the original for a new generation. What they got was a feather-light production that felt staged by a high school drama troupe – albeit a performing arts high school drama troupe.
Oh, and Rent Live wasn’t even live except for the final five minutes of the production. Let’s start there.
Brennin Hunt, who played the role of ex-junkie Roger, broke his foot during a rehearsal last week – instead of using an understudy or having Hunt’s version of Roger roll around in a wheelchair, FOX decided to air that rehearsal instead of going live. Even though the show was no longer technically live, a studio audience was still in attendance. Some critics will say the fact that it was a rehearsal performance may be an excuse for the production’s flaws and glitches – but flaws and glitches like bad casting, poor sound, and a cavernous 360-degree stage with mosh pits surround by 1,500 people in the audience probably existed before the rehearsal and would have still been there last night.
Kudos to the network for casting a troupe that was even more diverse than the original, though the considerably younger cast doesn’t carry the “street cred” of earlier the original or the 2005 film. As Mark, Broadway star Jordan Fisher gave an energetic, but nondescript performance, and the choice to forego Mark’s signature scarf seemed disrespectful – though points to the production for casting a person of color in the role.
The rest of the cast – pop star Tinashe as Mimi, Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins, Vanessa Hudgens (of High School Musical fame) as Maureen, Kiersey Clemons (Hearts Beat Loud) as Joanne, and R&B singer Mario as Benny – came across more like the cast of Glee. The vocal performances were weak and timid, a far cry from the rock and roll powerhouse vocals of the original cast. Hunt felt particularly mismatched, as he seemed ten years older and two feet taller than the rest of the cast.
As Angel, RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Valentina gets kudos for out-of the box casting, but while her looks (she’s the spitting image of Linda Evangelista) may get her on camera, her vocal skills weren’t quite up to snuff. At times, it sounded if her vocal tracks were dubbed, but it became clear that’s her real voice when she totally dropped pitch and mumbled through multiple lines of the duet “You Okay Honey?”
Rent Live was directed by television veteran Alex Rudzinski but the production team included music director Stephen Oremus, who got his start on the 1999 touring production, and production designer Jason Sherwood who worked on the original Broadway production .
There were the odd minor edits and changes for TV standards, but many of them seemed meaningless or pedantic: They change “piss to puke,” but keep in “mucho masturbation,” cut dildo but leave in faggots, lezzies, dykes, etc. The most confusing change occurs in the song “Life Support”, where Gordon’s original line is, “reason says I should have been dead three years ago” Rent Live changed it to, “reason says I should have died six months ago.” Why? It’s such an arbitrary change that feels like it was done for its own sake. Most references to the AIDS epidemic are missing from the production too, except for the occasional vanity cards with information as the show went to commercial. If this was someone’s first exposure to Rent, they probably missed the angst AIDS caused in the lives of the characters – hell, they probably missed the fact that Rent has a story.
The best part of Rent Live was the end – or almost the end. The closing five minutes were practically the only live part of Sunday’s broadcast, featuring the complete original Broadway cast including Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin and Adam Pascal performing “Seasons of Love.” Even after twenty years, their collective performance was deep, strong and powerful. It was the only time of the evening that the power of Jonathon Larsen’s story and music came through – though it was weakened when the Live cast attempt to sing along.
In the end, Rent Live felt like a high school musical production, with bad lighting, sitcom-like set design, characters breaking the “third wall” to high five with the audience and a wasted 25-piece in the rafters that sounded totally pre-recorded. It’s a shame, really – who knows how the live performance on the night would have worked out had fate not intervened and sidelined one of the main cast, forcing them to rely on pre-recorded dress rehearsal footage. But as is, Rent Live might want to get its security deposit back.