To a certain generation of theatre kid, “Rent” is a landmark, a seminal work that is also a personal milestone, akin to “A Chorus Line” a generation before and “Hamilton” a generation later. Each spoke to the travails and aspirations of a moment, cutting deep and reflecting a zeitgeist. “Rent” is Broadway’s Gen X answer to Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
…Fox and its production team deserve credit for going bold.
Expectations were therefore very high for Fox’s broadcast version, and devotees of Jonathan Larson’s update of “La Bohème” in the age of AIDS seemed split between those hoping for great success and those who wanted to see the TV version fall on its face. The result was somewhere in between.
In retrospect, it is a good thing that the producers ultimately decided against officially calling the production “Rent Live!” — because it was not. Certainly, no one could have predicted that Brennin Hunt, the show’s Roger, would break his ankle during the dress rehearsal. It’s actually quite amazing that this is the first time in the eight technically tricky Broadway-on-TV specials of recent years that an actor has been injured.
But might it have been wise to have an understudy on hand? Instead, viewers got what the New York Times called “a show you were never meant to see” — that same dress rehearsal, fortuitously caught on tape. Even so, much of the show did its stage predecessor proud.
Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen and Valentina as Angel were the standouts; Brandon Victor Dixon, who stole the show in last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC (produced and directed, like “Rent”, by Marc Platt and Alex Rudzinski respectively), was as understated as Collins as he was explosive last year as Judas, bringing some pathos to the often-overloud show.
As Mark, Jordan Fisher did the most to differentiate himself from his Broadway predecessor. Mark has worn the passing of the years since the show’s stage run the hardest. His compatriots must deal with actual suffering and oppression; Mark’s upper-middle-class cishet male “artistic suffering” has become more grating as the world has become more woke. Anthony Rapp’s Mark would now be nearly as irritating as one of those “influencers” from the recent Fyre Festival documentaries; Fisher’s Mark evokes sympathy as he helplessly watches his friends’ struggles.
The sexually frank show was kept mostly intact for broadcast television. Fox’s Standards and Practices team made some oddly arbitrary choices: “sodomy, it’s between God and me” and “mucho masturbation” remained; “dildo” was excised. (This was unexpectedly prudish from the network that’s been running “Family Guy” since “Rent” was the hottest thing on the Great White Way.) Instead of cuts to beloved songs, the producers opted to speed through the show’s few scenes of dialogue, which sometimes made the proceedings feel uneven.
The biggest failing of “Rent” on TV was… that it was on TV. The cameras zoomed in and out with abandon, making the stage sometimes appear like a sitcom set. The live audience cheered and whooped at inopportune (and sometimes inappropriate) moments, and their enthusiasm occasionally drowned out the performance itself.
But Fox and its production team deserve credit for going bold. Both Fox and NBC have gradually been adding more challenging works to their live-musical lineups. If a new generation discovered “Rent” this weekend, that alone makes it worthwhile.