Rent was a fairly obvious choice for a live broadcast. The musical has fans across the world, covering generations of musical theatre fans. The show has been on Off-Broadway, Broadway, the West End, toured around the world, and we all seem to know someone who did the show (sometimes at a disturbingly young age). However, Fox's live broadcast of Rent faced issues that affected the general production.
Brennin Hunt (who played the tortured guitarist Roger) broke his foot during a dress rehearsal prior to the broadcast, and instead of having him play the role in a wheelchair for the televised version, footage of a previous dress rehearsal was aired. For those live in the studio, the show did go on, with a now wheelchair-using Roger and honestly I wish that was aired instead of a previous rehearsal. A combination of sound mixing issues, and possible marking (pun intended) in the dress rehearsal footage, left for some lacklustre performances from what I thought was a generally good cast.
Jordan Fisher, Tinashe, and Kiersey Clemons all gave solid serviceable performances as the Mark Cohen, Mimi Marquez, and Joanne Jefferson, and they were six pairs of safe hands in a production with high expectations. I, however, felt for Tinashe as her romantic co-star Brennin Hunt was somewhat underwhelming as an actor. Their scenes together lacked chemistry, so when it came to "Your Eyes" I just thought, "Girl... stay in heaven... this dude isn't worth it. Angel is wrong." Speaking of Angel, the normally charismatic and delightfully extra Valentina seemed to struggle as Angel. Especially vocally. The role is not an easy sing (unless you're a high tenor, which in that case... I hate you out of sheer jealousy), and the role's function as the heart of the show requires the role to be incredibly well executed and Valentina just... didn't. However, I did enjoy that they attempted to explain the the non-binary nature of Angel's identity.
Vanessa Hudgens, Mario, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Keala Settle all did fantastic work in the show. Hudgens's Maureen was an over-the-top, overly ambitious performance studies student who has a lot of talent and no clue what to do with it. Her almost charming delusion gave me everything I needed in life. Mario took a role without a lot of solo singing (Benny), but made sure that we knew he knows how to sing, and I was living my dreams right there with him. Brandon Victor Dixon was solid. Benny and his "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" was a perfect example of being secure in the material and truly using your voice as not only a musical instrument, but as an extension of the emotion you are conveying as an actor. Keala Settle was a standout as the "Seasons of Love" soloist and as Cy (a character who was previously Paul), the facilitator of the Life Support meetings. May we live in a universe where she is in everything.
"Paul" being changed to "Cy" is not the only change to the original text that was in this production. "Seasons of Love" was given something that it didn't previously have: A narrative function. Normally a stand and sing situation that works to express the general theme of the show, here "Seasons of Love" was sung by Mark and different characters in the support group. The song was started by Mark, having Cy explain to the people in Life Support that they should measure their time on Earth in the mundane, everyday things and remind them that they're alive. This gave a narrative reason as to why Cy would go on to lead a solo section of the song. Cy was spearheading the sentiment of the song and directed to solo directly to Angel. As I know the show and knew that (20-year-old spoiler) Angel dies, this was quite a poignant piece of staging to me. This also informed why the soloist would start singing with Collins in "I'll Cover You (Reprise)." In my mind, Cy had probably been to a lot of these kinds of funerals and felt equipped to provide support for the loved ones of those who had passed on. Even if that support came in for the form of belting.
The production also made more use of Mark as a narrator. Not only did he talk about the action of the show, he also contextualised the events within the context of the AIDS epidemic, referring to the numbers of people who lived with AIDS in New York and the people that had died from AIDS or any related complications due to the illness. This worked to ground the show in the reality of the AIDS epidemic and how widespread it really was (and in some places still is).
Even thought I personally liked the changes made to the book, changing things in Rent is a complicated venture. The musical has existed in a somewhat fixed state in regards to how it is performed and adapted. Part of this could be to maintain the legacy of the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, and part of it could be due to the success of the original production. The show managed to become originally successful, even though when the show is further examined, there are a lot of aspects of the show that could have been remedied by Larson were he still alive. However, with Larson passing the morning before the first Off-Broadway preview, and with the desire to keep the show as his legacy, the show exists in a somewhat unfinished state. However, despite the unfinished nature of the show, it was still a success.
Because of this, drastic changes that stray from the original production, like costuming or staging, can really harm the production's reception. Maureen's black catsuit, Angel's Santa Claus costume, or Mimi's blue leather shorts are more than arbitrary aspects of iconography. They carry the heart that made the original production of a flawed piece of theatre work so well. Even though I liked some of the changes to the show within Fox's live broadcast, I totally understand that they could also hurt the production and the reception of it.
Overall, I did enjoy the broadcast, but these televised broadcasts will always pale in comparison to seeing the musical on stage. Scenes and songs seem to take a lot longer than they normally would do because the energy is somewhat lost through the screen. But... it was fun!
I'll be very interested to see how the live broadcast of Hair goes!
Love Peace and Hair Grease!
This review was written before the announcement of the cancellation of the live broadcast of Hair, so unfortunately, we will never know how the live broadcast for Hair will look.