In the ongoing battle between Fox and NBC to claim “best live television musical,” Fox gave NBC a run for their money with last night’s production of RENT. 23 years ago, Jonathan Larson’s contemporary adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme premiered off-broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, sharing a year in the life of several young, struggling artists living in Lower Manhattan’s East Village during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Unfortunately, on the morning of RENT’s premiere, Larson died unexpectedly from an aortic dissection and never got to see how successful his show had become. With the 35-year-old playwright’s life being taken so young, his lyrics taught a generation “there is no day but today”.
Fox had big shoes to fill because it’s hard to think about there ever being a cast that doesn’t include the heavy-hitting OGs, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, and Idina Menzel. Every RENT nerd out there knows every lyric and every teeny-tiny vocal inflection from the cast recording, and they went in already mad about the new cast, which for some reason doesn’t include 47-year-old Idina reprising her 20-something-year-old character dressed in a rubber catsuit. There are at least a few people like that who will hate it no matter what.
Last night’s show already stepped off on the wrong foot, so to speak. Brennin Hunt, who played the mopey songwriter Roger, broke his foot the night before the show was set to go live, so unfortunately, last night’s broadcast featured a Frankensteined amalgam of previously-recorded footage mixed with the live performance. Despite that, I really found myself enjoying the adaption.
The winners of the night…
The biggest winner in my book was Mark, played by 24-year-old Jordan Fisher, whom you might remember from Fox’s Grease: Live as well as Disney’s Teen Beach musical movies. Fisher gave us the perfect blend of everything we enjoyed about Anthony Rapp’s original version of Mark mixed with his own unique interpretation of the character fit for a 2019 adaption. I have mega heart eyes for days over this dude.
Two more big make it or break it moments for me were the set and costume design. Fox has taken several different approaches for achieving the right blend of stage and film over the years. One of the most ambitious set designs was their 2016 televised production of Grease that featured 44 cameras, two sound stages, and half of the Warner Bros. backlot to achieve realistic-looking, 360-degree immersive sets. It was so huge, the cast had to be ferried from location to location via an army of golf carts. I was so happy to see that RENT did not do this. It worked well for the nature of Grease, but RENT isn’t about the spectacle by any means. Last night’s set was definitely created with the original in mind, featuring a massive junk statue with metal scaffolding of various levels performed in the round. Out of all the live Fox musicals, this set was certainly one of the most simple and stage-like. Was this risk an effective one? Darn tootin’. I loved it. In partnership with the great set was great costume design. I’m sure everyone was expecting to see Angel’s signature Christmassy red Santa coat and striped tights in the “Today 4 U” number, and they gave them to us but with a really cool twist. The designers breathed new life into the two-decade old fashions and provided the excellent texture and attention to detail that a television broadcast requires. I’m just going to say it: I was living for all of those platform boots. I will take them all in a size 8 right now, please.
Both NBC and Fox are starting to catch on that it isn’t all about the celebrity presence. Except for Vanessa Hudgens, RENT boasts a relatively unknown cast made up of actors who can boast the endurance needed for live theatre, which cannot always be said for their film star counterparts. This brings me to another highlight of this production, featuring the unsung heroes of live musical theatre: the ensemble. Behind every great Broadway diva lies the working stiffs who will probably go through their entire musical theatre careers without their names on a marquee. But that doesn’t matter to them because they are there for the art and joy of theatre. This ensemble was top-notch, bringing the edgy angst of the title song, “Rent” to life as well as making me melt into a puddle of tears with their beautiful rendition of “Will I?” The director took arisk by giving away the most well-known song, “Seasons of Love,” to a nameless ensemble member instead of the main characters, which was actually a great decision because the gal killed it. Oof, I will always care about you, ensemble. You are all the true MVPs of this production.
My last favorite thing of note was the number of recurring homages to Jonathan Larson. Whether this show would be where it is today if he hadn’t passed away on opening night, we’ll never know, but his death was a stern reminder of the ever-present themes of life, death, and having no regrets in RENT. Commercial breaks were bookended with quotes from Larson, and the finale had me ugly crying as they projected photos of him onto the set. Of course, to really drive a nail in my heart, the OG cast came out at the end to sing a reprise of “Seasons of Love.” The only negative was Idina Menzel’s unfortunate riffing, her poor lil’ overworked voice not quite the way it was twenty years ago. But it’s OK, because we love you anyway, Idina.
...and the losers of the night.
While there were plenty of wins for the show, there were a few stank-face “that’s a choice” moments too. Those audio engineers need a swift kick in the butt after last night. Granted, they were dealt a tough hand. Since most of what we saw was from a dress rehearsal, I’m sure the crew was still working out some kinks in finding the right levels between the actors, the band, and the live audience. But there was more than one moment where I couldn’t hear a word from the performers over the sound of the band. And while we do love the authenticity of a cheering audience, sometimes the screaming was overwhelming, not to mention my giant pet peeve of people clapping along when they’re not supposed to… why do we gotta do that all the time? Staahhppp. It’s too bad the sound was so stinky, because while an audience never notices good sound, they will always notice bad sound.
While there were a few stand-outs in the cast, there were still a couple of snoozers. Even though Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe was cute as a button in her role as the troubled, heroin-addicted exotic dancer, Mimi, her performance was kind of blah. The character’s big song, “Out Tonight,” is a chance to let Mimi’s wild side out for a prowl, and I think she could have taken it much further.
I was super bummed out by Kiersey Clemons in her role as Joanna after falling in love with her in Hearts Beat Loud last year, but this is a great example of someone who rocks at singing and performing on film, but can’t transfer that to the stage. She had her good moments, but there were a ton of pitchy, out-of-breath bits that weren’t awesome.
I’m not really sure why so many people hated it, because as a self-proclaimed RENT connoisseur myself, I didn’t think it was all that sucky, considering the way my friends took to Twitter with rage. Though I will say I wish that Fox and NBC would stop choosing musicals with already very popular film adaptations. No matter how well-done it is, fans of the originals will walk in ready to rip it apart. Hopefully, in the future, these networks will take advantage of other musicals we haven’t seen to the point of exhaustion. I understand that they want to make choices more people than just theatre dorks will watch, but I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if they took a chance on other popular, edgy, fun shows like La Cage aux Folles, In the Heights, and in my wildest dreams, Book of Mormon. While we probably won’t get our televised Hamilton for many years, it’s fun to fantasize about what show Fox and NBC will do next to up the ante!