Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: ‘Rent: Live’ betrays the spirit of live theater, but it’s still fun

"Rent: Live" was broadcast by Fox on Jan. 27. It is a partially live production of the 1996 Tony Award-winning musical "Rent."
"Rent: Live" was broadcast by Fox on Jan. 27. It is a partially live production of the 1996 Tony Award-winning musical "Rent."

Of course I was a Renthead. That’s not even a question. Where else did I learn screlting (“scream belting”), a shallow history of the AIDS crisis and toxic ideas about bisexuality?

I slept many a ninth grade night with “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway” playing on loop. Sometimes I’d mix it up and rewatch the 2005 “Rent” movie featuring the visibly aged original Broadway cast. I still have bootleg clips of “Rent” in rehearsals from 1996. 

I’m now older, wiser and a theater major, so I have a few quibbles with “Rent” as a text and cultural force. Its author, Jonathan Larson, died just before its off-Broadway premiere. He left behind a work that’s structurally and socially imperfect, preserved in amber due to its tragedy.

All that said, I’ve never seen “Rent” live. After last night, I still haven’t.

Hours before the 8 p.m. broadcast, Fox announced "Rent: Live"'s Roger, a musician named Brennin Hunt, rolled his ankle during the production’s final dress rehearsal. The network would air a mixture of live performance and footage from final dress, which was filmed in case of injury or technical mishaps.

I’d just earnestly sung along to a pre-recorded “Light My Candle” when Fox aired a clip of Vanessa Hudgens and the rest of the cast saying Hunt was back from the hospital in a wheelchair with a broken foot.

The live audience would still see a performance with the cast improvising blocking around Hunt. TV audiences, however, would get the dress rehearsal. In the end, the only parts of “Rent: Live” that were actually live were the last three songs and curtain call.

A dress rehearsal isn’t a performance. I could hear some cast members marking, or under-singing, their parts to preserve their voices ahead of the live recording. As someone in constant recovery from tech week, I also experience Pavlovian dread at the words “dress rehearsal.”

Meanwhile, live social media videos from the Fox sound stage audience offered glimpses of the actual performance, which took the form of a minimally staged, spirited concert reading.

One clip shows Hunt tearing through “Another Day” at Mimi’s actor Tinashe, who’s on the floor to meet his seated height.

“La Vie Boheme,” shown in dress rehearsal with a modular restaurant set, was redone sans tables so Hunt could be part of the blocking.

Actor Jordan Fisher, who played Mark, joined Mimi and Roger’s love duet “I Should Tell You” after he wheeled Hunt into place.

Fox eventually started posting its own footage of the live performance, calling it “the cast concert version.” Brandon Victor Dixon’s “I’ll Cover You” reprise is unsurprisingly even more devastating than the dress rehearsal clip.

You can take this as a cautionary tale, as proof understudies are necessary even for one night only performances like “Rent: Live.” I wonder how much time the cast had to rehearse in their frankly hazardous-looking boots.

Ensemble member Emerson Collins was made up to look ill when he played an HIV/AIDS patient in the song “Will I?” He wore ghostly foundation and what looked like infectious rashes on his face.

In this show that performs death and ailing bodies, why can’t we see Roger use a wheelchair?

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