Rent Live was billed as a must-watch musical event, but the emotional core of this iconic musical seemed to take an unfortunate turn.
As musical stage productions turned television events become more popular, Rent Live stood to bring the legendary Jonathan Larson musical to a wide audience. While the Tony Award-winning musical has already hit the big screen, the live musical event had the opportunity to introduce a musical about love, acceptance and embracing the now to a new, modern audience.
Unfortunately, the FOX television event seemed to be missing a big element — the emotional connection.
When last night’s airing of Rent Live began, viewers were ready to zoom in and see a new cast take on the roles that changed Broadway theater. But, a little caption, “pre-recorded” seemed to set a tone for the production as a whole. While there were some highlights in the three-hour show, some of the performances seemed to rely on the theatric. In those decisions, the “theatric” overshadowed the poignant.
Pre-recorded scenes (for the majority of the show) were used because of an unfortunate accident. Brennin Hunt (Roger) broke his foot during rehearsals, and thus Fox made the decision to broadcast pre-recorded numbers. Still, issues didn’t arise due to his injury. Actually, Hunt’s Roger was a highlight in this production. The concerns, and even confusion, with this production were more than an unfortunate event.
To be completely honest, Rent is one of my favorite Broadway musicals. I saw the original cast perform on Broadway many, many years ago. Also, I have seen stage production over the years in various staging.RENT: L-R: Jordan Fisher and Brennin Hunt in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
This musical has resonated with me and will continue to move me. For me, this musical isn’t about the flamboyant or the in-your-face moments. The true connection comes from the raw, universal truths that transcend the era that frames the story.
One of the unfortunate aspects to Rent Live was that the production seemed to focus on big, splashy production moments instead of the emotional core of the musical. Putting aside all the lyric editing (why can’t you say meatless balls, but you can say other phrases), the product seemed focused on bringing the audience in as another cast member. Why did Mark and Roger start pandering to the audience mid-song? The audience screaming seemed like they were attending a boy band concert.
Some of the most heart-wrenching songs seemed to lose focus. Probably one of the most debated parts of last night’s production was the re-staging of Seasons of Love at the beginning of act 2. While some people appreciated the new take, it seemed to hit only the superficial. This song deserves more than superficial.
That song should make a connection with the audience or the listener. There is a fine balance between despair and hope. While love can bring sustenance, love is also fleeting. At some point, the cast seemed to miss that dichotomy.
Looking at the performances, Rent Live wasn’t a complete loss. As stated previously, Brennin Hunt did a good job as Roger. Even in the dress rehearsal footage, he was able to convey that balance that this character needs. Part bravado and part insecurity were felt in many of his songs. Overall, he was a positive.RENT: Vanessa Hudgens in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Vanessa Hudgens nailed Maureen. With probably the hardest role to fill (would you want to take on Idina Menzel’s role?), Hudgens belted out the authoritative character with a sense of ease. She seamlessly switched from aloof to vulnerable to indignant. While everyone in the audience might have forgotten their cue to “moo,” Hudgens commanded the stage as Maureen.
Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins was the probably the only character that had an emotional arc in this production. Dixon showed what a Broadway veteran can do with a character. It isn’t about hitting, holding or belting out a note. It’s conveying the impact that the character has on the performer as well as the audience.
Dixon, especially in I’ll Cover You (reprise), excelled in showing that quiet moments should have a bigger impact in a production. His anguish at losing his love was heartfelt and real. In truth, this song had a more emotional impact than Seasons of Love.RENT: Jesse L. Martin and Brandon Victor Dixon in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Kevin Estrada/FOX
While these performances might have provided some sparks of hope, several other aspects of this production were almost cringe-worthy. Broadway musicals take a special talent. There are no pre-recorded tracks, voice filters or other help from the mixing board. Poor singing cannot be hidden by a dance number on the stage.
Several of the songs seemed like the performers were just going through the motions. Since much of the was from taped scenes during the rehearsal the day before, this could be the cause. Rehearsals mirror the true performance, of course, but actors may not be fully present as opposed to knowing they’re doing their live run.
For example, with Mimi, she is a flawed character who tries to keep up a tough exterior. Shaky vocals don’t convey vulnerability. Rather, they undermine a character’s wants and needs more than her current existence. If the audience doesn’t want to care for Mimi, why does it matter if Roger finally completes his love song?RENT: L-R: Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher and cast members in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Now before the show even aired, there was intense commentary over one particular casting — Jordan Fisher playing Mark. At this point in musical theater, why are people focusing on race and characters? From Hamilton to even Frozen, race doesn’t need to be part of the conversation. Isn’t the only important aspect to a role the performance?
The conversation shouldn’t be about the first black Mark. It should be whether Fisher made a compelling Mark. With all the conversational interludes and the pandering to the audience, did the idea of the “observer” become overshadowed by the desire to be included?
Overall, Rent Live was not the smashing success many people had hoped. From poor staging choices to lackluster performances, this version of the award-winning musical fell flat. This production may preview less “live” television musicals being made. Whether that idea is good or bad remains to be seen.
If you had never seen Rent and Rent Live was your only introduction to this musical, I implore you to listen to the original cast recording. Even without a single visual, the music can, should and will move you in ways that its creator, Jonathan Larson intended. Music, not visuals, can leave a lasting impression on your heart.
What is the biggest takeaway from last night’s Rent Live? Some of life’s quiet moments can be the most endearing. Maybe we all could use a little time away from the flashy, over-staged visuals that seem to take over entertainment mediums today.
Did you enjoy Rent Live? Let us know your thoughts about the production in the comments.