Tech glitches, broken bones, ghosts of stage productions past and, worst of all, live television’s unfortunate and intrusive vogue for giving studio audiences far, far too much screen time couldn’t do overmuch damage to Rent, Jonathan Larson’s beloved-by-many ’90s musical that added another chapter to both TV’s refound love of Broadway and the show’s own against-the-odds trouper legend.
In what turned out to be a fortuitous move, Fox had not been calling the new Rent anything other than that one-word title (early reports had it as Rent: Live!). Good thing: the show became more Rent: Somewhat Live! after star Brennin Hunt, who played struggling musician Roger, broke his foot during a dress rehearsal yesterday.
What aired on Fox tonight, as explained by the cast in an address to the television audience early in the proceedings, was mostly last night’s dress rehearsal, taped before a live audience, with Hunt’s Doc Marten-clad foot intact. Apparently only the final scene of tonight’s show was a truly live broadcast, with Hunt’s foot, in a cast, propped on a chair. No matter, really, at least as far as continuity: The scene is, in a way, an epilogue, taking place months after the plot’s main event.
But if continuity wasn’t sacrificed, resorting to the dress rehearsal tape left me wondering if the occasionally underwhelming performances from some cast members during this three-hour event could be attributed to holding back for the anticipated big night. Not only that, but in New York City, at least, the first five minutes were dead air, a technical glitch fairly quickly remedied but one that contributed to a shaky start indeed.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, at least to the hard-core Rent fans – Rentheads – who packed the large studio audience and seemed to get every bit as much airtime as the cast. Like the recent Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and Grease: Live, tonight’s Rent (all three were produced by Marc Platt, with TV direction by Alex Rudzinski) was so heavy on the audience interaction that the show itself sometimes seemed secondary, and as tiny as a raft in a sea.
For all of television’s recent ballyhooed embrace of stage musicals, the networks still seem jittery about, well, stage musicals, and so hedge their bets against seeming too PBS-y by amplifying the event aspect, complete with noisy and very visible American Idol-style audiences.
When a production is lousy (A Christmas Story Live!), miscast (Peter Pan Live!‘s Christopher Walken) or both (The Sound of Music Live! with Carrie Underwood), the enthusiasm forced on TV viewers by a live audience makes a certain sense, but tonight’s Rent, stage directed by the original production’s Michael Greif, was neither.
Set in early ’90s downtown Manhattan, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Rent, based on Puccini’s La Bohème, follows seven young friends living, or struggling to live, the bohemian life. Musicians, a filmmaker, a performance artist, a drag queen, a radical professor, among others, all do their best to survive in an East Village ravaged by AIDS and the beginnings of high-rent gentrification.
Larson wouldn’t live to see his major work become a major work: He died the day Rent was to begin its first fully produced Off Broadway run. The show, of course, was a smash, moved to Broadway, won awards and developed a massive worldwide following.
If the musical’s subject matter – HIV, drugs, gender nonconformity – no longer startles, tonight’s production made a fairly convincing case for Rent’s longevity.
Vanessa Hudgens, who played the avant garde performance artist Maureen, and Kiersey Clemons as her lawyer girlfriend Joanne, were terrific, their “Take Me or Leave Me” duet one of tonight’s highlights. And if the extremely silly, pretend-avant garde “Over the Moon” remains Rent‘s single worst number, Hudgens did what she could.
And Brandon Victor Dixon, as the big-hearted anarchist Tom Collins, all but walked off with the show, just as he did as Judas in last spring’s Jesus Christ Superstar, earning every last teardrop from “I’ll Cover You,” the love ballad he first sings as a duet with his beloved Angel (an assured, if not always vocally on point, Valentina from RuPaul’s Drag Race) and then later, heartrendingly, at Angel’s memorial service.
The rest of the ensemble mostly held up, if occasionally getting lost in the busy goings on. Jordan Fisher (Hamilton) couldn’t erase memories of Anthony Rapp’s original Mark, and Hunt, injured or otherwise, sang well but showed little of the charisma that made a break-out of Adam Pascal. Keala Settle, easily the most memorable part of Hugh Jackman’s The Greatest Showman, had a small but crucial role tonight, singing the solo on the musical’s most revered song “Seasons of Love.” Even detractors of her over-the-top Idol stylings might give in after tonight’s showing.
Rent still has its problems, and tonight’s version — even with music director Stephen Oremus just-enough updating of the music and set designer Jason Sherwood’s expansive use of catwalks and runways appropriate for the massive Fox studio in Los Angeles — couldn’t right its wrongs. Angel, the fearless transvestite whose death by AIDS shatters the group of friends, remains too much what her name suggests (not even her murder of a dog — yes, you read that right — can dim her halo.
And the camera zooming in for a close-up as Mimi doesn’t breathe her last — Surprise! — only exaggerated Larson’s cop-out of an ending. The she’s-not-dead-after-all moment always seemed like a Carol Burnett Show Camille gag to me, never more so than tonight.
Fortunately, the moment was quickly overshadowed by the not-so-surprise onstage arrival of the original Broadway cast, joining the new gang in a “Seasons of Love” reprise. Consider tonight’s staging a success if only for holding its own with Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin reminding Rentheads and everyone else just why this show shook Broadway and the world all those years ago.