“RENT: Live” aired on FOX Sunday, January 27 when an unexpected twist about the production came to light—that “RENT: Live” actually wasn’t going to be performed live.
Shortly before the first commercial break of “RENT: Live” on FOX, a clip showing the cast huddled together on stage aired. They explained that due to an injury sustained by Brennin Hunt (who played Mark in the production), most of what would be aired Sunday night would be footage recorded during the live dress rehearsal on Saturday.
The announcement cleared up viewers confusion over the brief “Previously Recorded” message that flashed on screen as the opening number began, but caused an onslaught of other valid questions, the most resounding being: Why was there no understudy?
Thus, a fatal flaw with these popular live television renditions of Broadway hits finally came to surface. With any theatrical production, any cast member that has more than a handful of lines will have an understudy ready and lowkey-enthusiastically hoping that something will go wrong and they’ll get their moment.
This was not the case with “RENT,” as was made clear in the announcement. “The show must go on!” exclaimed one cast member—and oh boy, did it go on.
I’ve been a part of my fair share of theatrical productions (by that I mean exactly two, in high school. And by “a part” I mean my role as lovely fifth alternate clarinet player in the pit orchestra). Still, I understand how a dress rehearsal works. Yes, you are in full costume and yes, by nature you are supposed to “give it your all” and sometimes (as is the case with this production) you are even performing for an audience.
Even though I myself am not a performer, I still understand that a dress rehearsal is drastically different than the actual performance. Adrenaline is nowhere near as high, nor are the stakes. This puts “RENT: Live” in a weird state of judgement. As Aisha Harris put it perfectly for the New York Times, “How do you measure a show you were never meant to see?”
For me, I do so based on how I enjoyed the three-hour chunk of my time that I set aside to tune in. While I don’t necessarily regret watching “RENT: Live,” do I wish it had actually been live? Absolutely. For a multitude of reasons.
Having never seen “RENT” (the stage show or 2003 movie) prior to the televised performance, I found myself lost from the beginning. The set was intricately designed, but hard to follow. Unlike past televised musicals like “Grease” and “Hairspray,” the production team of “RENT” decided to go for a staged performance with a live audience instead of a collection of sets. The result made the story hard to follow, as you could never really tell who was where or which characters were actually together at any given moment.
Like most televised musicals, “RENT” compiled a cast of both Broadway veterans and more popular stars. Jordan Fisher (“Grease: Live”) and Brennin Hunt (The X Factor) took on the roles of Mark and Roger, respectively. Fisher commanded the stage as usual, which lead to a sort of shadow being cast on Hunt during most of the duos scenes together.
Vanessa Hudgens (“Grease: Live”) and Kiersey Clemons (“Dope”) played odd-couple Maureen and Joanne and were the obvious standouts of the night. Hudgens, who has grown exponentially since her “High School Musical” days, stood out in particular on “Over the Moon,” while the pair stole the show with popular duet “Take Me or Leave Me.”
R&B singer Tinashe (“Dancing With the Stars”) certainly lacked energy during the performance, and for such a big role, tended to remain in the background for much of the three-hour show. “Rupaul’s Drag Race” alumna Valentina was delightful as Angel, though was by far the worst vocally. However her duet with Brandon Victor Dixon (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), “I’ll Cover You,” drew the most “aww’s” from the nationwide audience, while Dixon’s later reprise of the same song after Angel’s untimely death no doubt caused the most tears.
Even in dress rehearsal, Keala Settle (“The Greatest Showman”) shined as the soloist in “Seasons of Love” (which I fully believed to be the closing number of the show and was very confused when it began only an hour in).
Aside from a general lack of energy and excitement, the biggest flaw of “RENT: Live” was the horrible audio mixing. While the camera work would lead you to believe that producers wanted the performance to feel removed from the stage, the overtly rambunctious audience completely contradicted that. Valentina could barely be heard over the audience during her rendition of “Today 4 U.” and even more infuriating was when the large crowd screamed over Hudgen’s long-awaited entrance line, almost completely drowning her out.
The worst part is that after reviewing the dress rehearsal footage, most or all of these kinks would have likely been ironed out.
While nothing went perfect for “RENT: Live,” the finale (which was the only part of the broadcast that was truly live) was as delectably heartwarming as you would expect. With the original Broadway cast joining the current one for one final, powerful performance of “Seasons of Love” after a touching tribute to playwright Jonathan Larson, the cast more than made up for the rocky footage that aired in the preceding three hours and finally conveyed the energy that “RENT” is all about.