no day but yesterday

The Highs and Lows of Rent: Live

Rent: Live star Brennin Hunt broke his foot during Saturday's dress rehearsal.
Rent: Live star Brennin Hunt broke his foot during Saturday’s dress rehearsal. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

When live TV-musicals go well, they can be fantastic. When things go awry, like when one of your leads injures himself in the dress rehearsal and can no longer run up and down all the stairs on the set, things get bumpier. Fox’s Rent: Live had its good spots, including Brandon Michael Dixon’s performance of “I’ll Cover You [Reprise],” Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen, and the show’s generally thoughtful set. It made some divisive choices (see: Hot Mark). But the production’s legacy will always be that it was not live. Except for the final 15 minutes (which were great!), it was all footage of the pre-taped dress rehearsal performance from the previous day. It showed. Much of the energy was weird and lackluster, and the not-quite-live aspect of the production became a damper on the whole thing. When you spend the night watching a tape from yesterday, Rent’s claim that there’s no day like today becomes a little too meaningful.

Low: Beginning the show with the words “Previously recorded”

Rent: Live’s Roger, Brennin Hunt, broke his foot in dress rehearsal Saturday night, and Fox had not contracted an understudy. Instead of embracing the chaotic energy of a true live show, Fox decided to air a taped version of the dress rehearsal until the final sequence, giving us what felt like a decidedly low-energy version of Rent: ‘Live,while still performing what looked like a far-more-interesting version of the show for the people actually in the audience, where Hunt was in a wheelchair.  Jackson McHenry

High: Brennin Hunt

It’s hard enough to step into the role of Roger, the angsty, guitar strummer made famous by the great Adam Pascal. It’s really hard when you broke your damn foot. Even though we didn’t get to see it, as noted above, Hunt performed the entire show for the live audience in a wheelchair, which makes him the Dave Grohl of live network musicals, even if we didn’t technically get to see it. So props for that, and props for his performance in the pre-recorded version, too, where he achieved more than just one song’s worth of glory. —Jen Chaney

Low: Frenetic camera work

We know the camera work in Grease: Live was cool, but we don’t need Rent with the camera spinning around for no reason, especially in the musical’s quieter scenes. Just let Mimi linger on death’s door without making the event feel like it was filmed by a gnat with a camera. —JM

Low: Valentina’s vocals on “Today for You, Tomorrow for Me”

Valentina brought great energy and spirit to the production, but her vocals were not as strong as they could have been, especially since Angel tends to have one of the strongest voices in the show. You could hear the strain on the high notes right out of the gate on this number. —JC

Low: Unnecessary subs for lines like “poo poo it”

They managed to fit in a lot of words you might not expect to hear on Fox during primetime — including “masturbation,” “lezzies,” and even “ACT Up” — but also went for a lot of odd lyric changes, including cutting several “fucks” as well as “poo poo it,” “dildos,” and (as the 2005 movie sadly did) mention of the Clit Club before “Take Me or Leave Me.” Like the East Village itself, this version has been hella gentrified. —JM

High: “The Tango Maureen”

This was the first truly great number of the night, IMO. Jordan Fisher as Mark and Kiersey Clemons as Joanne executed the choreography seamlessly in a duet that only soars when the two actors are in synch with each other. Fisher and Clemons definitely were. —JC

High: Thoughtful, evocative props

Whenever the camera stopped moving long enough, you could appreciate some lovely, meaningful props on the very full stage. Art by Keith Haring (who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990), copies of the Village Voice, a very plausible-looking answering machine, and every single object in Maureen’s Elsie performance. As noted on Twitter, even some of the posters spoke to Jonathan Larson’s legacy. —Kathryn VanArendonk

Low: The sound mix

Live television is hard, but it’s especially hard to forgive messy sound mixing on a tape-delayed performance! —KV

High: “Will I”

Although the camera swirled around everyone like a mouse trapped on a turntable, the big chorus moments were strong enough to combat the dizziness. “Will I” was the first number where everyone was on the same page and you thought, “Oh right, this is Rent!” —KV

High: Vanessa! Hudgens!

For so much of the production, Fox’s Rent felt like the dress rehearsal it was, lackluster energy, with everyone palpably aware that this wasn’t meant to be the real thing. And then, like an angel from on high dressed in cow-print pants, Vanessa Hudgens arrived as Maureen and instantly upped the ante for the rest of the cast. It’s not ideal that the intentionally dumb, humorous performance art was one of the most magnetic moments in the show, but Hudgens’s charisma cannot be denied. —KV

High: “La Vie Boheme”

This is one of the most joyful songs in the show, and the joy and infectious chaos was all there. Plus, there was tons of bumping and grinding, and same-sex kissing, and “mucho masturbation,” and “sodomy, it’s between God and me,” and a spirited “to S&M!” I can’t wait to hear the commentators on Fox’s sister station, Fox News — “Sisters? They’re close” — going off on tirades about it all tomorrow. —JC

Low: Mark was too hot!

If Mark was supposed to be this hot, JC Chasez would’ve played him on Broadway. Look, I am not complaining that Jordan Fisher was on my TV screen for three hours. Mark can be played by a hot actor, but, in that case, he should be styled so the audience knows he’s not hot. Like, did his iconically bad sweater need a glow up? A nose ring?!?! How’s he going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Speaking of, it’s obvious why they cut out the line about him being unable to hold an erection during the high holidays. Hot Mark fucks five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes a year. The least he could’ve done is sing like a nerd! Let’s do it all again. Ben Platt comes back to play Mark. And Jordan Fisher can play, I don’t know, a version of Roger who moves very carefully. —Jesse David Fox

High: Jordan Fisher

Sorry Jesse, but I actually appreciated Fisher’s performance as Mark. It’s true, he wasn’t nerdy and didn’t necessarily seem like a true bohemian. But his talent and charisma were such a force that I enjoyed him anyway. I mean, did you hear how he jumped eight octaves on the “Dear old mom and dad” in “La Vie Boheme”? —JC

Low: How they staged “Seasons of Love”

I may not be no big city theater director [pulls suspenders], but this one’s supposed to be easy. Cast walks from backstage to the front of the stage. They sing the song and look at each other nicely. I’d call it “Brechtian,” if I knew what that meant. They even do it in the movie and it’s a movie! That’s because you want to be able to focus on the song: the lyrics, the melodies. It plays like an impassioned plea directly to the audience. It demands your attention. But staged how they did it on Rent: Live, where the lines are sung like dialogue, makes the whole thing seem hokey. And that sucks. Just imagine in an ideal world, if they did it the normal way, with Mimi rolling Roger in on a wheelchair? (You don’t even have to imagine!) —JDF

High: “I’ll Cover You [Reprise]”

There are just some songs you really don’t want them to mess up and, with the cast all suffering from Small Dress Rehearsal Energy all first act, I kept on thinking about this moment. Then, after the in-artful change to the iconic staging of “Seasons of Love,” I started actively dreading it. “I’ll Cover You [Reprise],” a.k.a. the part of the show that literally the entire theater cries during, is the real deal. It is musical theater at the height of its emotional powers. I would’ve turned it off at the first notice that they weren’t in it. (I know this is a lot of build up.)

Then Brandon Victor Dixon started singing and you forgot this wasn’t live. You forgot you have seen this scene before and you’ve heard hundreds of times. It felt like it was happening for the first time. At one point, Tinashe wipes her face she’s crying so much and you can tell that wasn’t an in-character tear wipe. She just had a front-row seat to something really special. It was as beautiful and devastating as the song can be. And maybe the highest compliment I can give it is from now on when I want to listen to this song — because I want to just be 100% feelings — I will Google this version. It was the highlight of the show. —JDF

High: “What You Own”

As songs from Rent go, I’ve always thought this one is wildly underappreciated. Hunt and Fisher did the shared harmonies justice and the staging brought the two of them together and let the number hit its crescendo perfectly. Plus, this song is about not selling out, which is a concept that everyone stopped caring about post-1990s and therefore, it is extra-precious to hear it now. —JC

High: When it finally went live … 15 minutes before the end of the night

There’s no better proof of the difference between a taped dress rehearsal and a live production than the instant energy shift that happened for the final scenes, when Fox at last cut to the live stage performance. Brennin Hunt, with a medical boot visible on his foot, sat propped on a table, and there was one inadvertently funny moment where Maureen explained they couldn’t get Mimi up the stairs and Roger had to shout, “NO!” while uselessly stranded in the middle of the stage. In spite of that awkwardness, the performances in the live scenes were significantly stronger than the pre-taped footage. —KV

High: When the original cast joined the Fox cast

At the end, everyone from the original cast sang “Seasons of Love” with the Fox crew, and it was so adorable I promptly forgot about my frustration with much of the previous three hours. Idina! Anthony Rapp! Adam Pascal! Jesse L. Martin hugging Brandon Michael Dixon! (Jesse L. Martin’s hat!) This is the thing about live musical theater: one fully sincere, teary-eyed final number and you are powerless to resist. —KV

The Highs and Lows of Rent: Live