If, for some reason, you don't know what happens in Rent, well, it rhymes with "shades." No but seriously, if you don't know what happens and you don't want to know because you want to experience what happened live onstage last night, this post is not for you. Also: join the club! None of us got to see what happened live onstage last night, because of a pots-and-pans-falling-down-a-stairwell series of mishaps. Anyway, this post will talk about the storyline in full, so if you care about spoilers, go away. Also, if for some reason you don't like musicals, or you don't like Rent, or you don't like live television, or the arts, or reading blog posts, or happiness, go away! Be off with you!
Okay, are you still with me? Shall we talk about what happened last night? To quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rent: "Let's begin."
1. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat the hellllllllllll.... As you undoubtedly know if you watched the show, none of us got to see last night's live show. We mostly got to see Saturday night's final dress rehearsal. It must be said: Not bad for a dress rehearsal. But also: Not a live show! After the person playing Roger, named Brennin Hunt, who is a good singer and (at best) a so-so actor, reportedly broke his foot during act two of the dress rehearsal, Fox scrambled like crazy to figure out what to air, because they had not hired any understudies or stand-ins. Dolts! Who doesn't hire understudies for a live performance? TV people, that's who. So we got to watch a cobbled-together mishmash of mostly dress rehearsal plus a little bit of the very end of the actual live show. As for the people who actually had tickets to the live show last night, they got to watch Brennin Hunt do the show in a cast and wheelchair, which honestly sounds so much better than what we saw. Look!
You wish you could see this version! @RENTonFOX #RentLive pic.twitter.com/HhEbHnN3HB
— Alison Young (@Foreverayoung) January 28, 2019
Why is this better? Because Roger is a weird part; of all the parts in the show, his part is perhaps the most dated and blank; he's supposed to be hobbled by terminal illness, and supposed to be frantically trying to write at least one song before he dies of AIDS; but usually he's played by some indie-rock-type pretty-boy hipster who looks like he's never seen the inside of a hospital. If you don't think he's on death's doorstep, none of his sappy singing works. And last night as I watched (the dress rehearsal), I kept thinking: Huh, Roger's not that good an actor, although he can sing. And then during the last number, when they actually showed some of the live curtain call, and he came out in a cast, i.e. hobbled by a medical crisis, I swear to God, suddenly everything worked. The part worked. With an awkward constraint like a wheelchair, suddenly he was Roger. But Fox made the dumb decision not to air most of that footage.
2. Valentina is not good at singing, acting, or dancing. I'm sorry! I know she's enormously popular on RuPaul's Drag Race. And honestly she's a big reason I tuned in last night, because I knew Valentina from Drag Race was playing Angel. But.... uhhhhhmmmm.... can someone remind me what she's good at? "Not lip synching" and "forgetting to paint on her eye-makeup under her sunglasses" are what's coming to mind. I'M TEASING! She's good at... being photographed? Angel is the emotional heart of Rent. She needs to be warm (which has never been Valentina's strong suit), she needs to absolutely slay on her number "Today 4 U" (dancing on the table, playing drumsticks like a rhythm goddess, and just generally being a dynamite member of Alphabet City's performance-art avant-garde... none of which she pulled off), she needs to be able to sing (she struggled with the high notes and the low notes)... I don't know. It was fine. It wasn't abysmal. But it wasn't good.
You know who was a really good Angel? Jinkx Monsoon in the 5th Avenue's production. Remember that?
But I digress.
3. This Rent was so much better than the movie. For all its faults, last night's production was 1000 percent better than the Chris Columbus movie. Granted, the movie has Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel—who invented the character, who won the Tony for playing the character on Broadway, etc. etc. But overall that movie is just bad. Its spacious, "funky" interiors make the whole thing seem like an advertisement for Urban Outfitters. It doesn't seem punk at all, it doesn't have any urgency, it doesn't have that live-concert life-or-death covered-in-sweat vibe that Rent has to have. Last night's production did. The way the scenic design (by Jason Sherwood) incorporated crowds of people into it, and made the whole thing seem like a teeming city, and opened up what is usually a very two-dimensional set into a whole universe of clever staging, was genius. Plus every tiny detail was absolutely brilliant. If there is any justice in the world, this janky, falling-apart, understudy-less live concert version will outlast the movie, flaws and all.
4. Collins didn't have that Collins voice. Collins is the part who needs to bring us to tears in act two over his grief—everyone's grief—at Angel's death. In the original production (and every other production I've seen), Collins has an unbelievably rich baritone. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played the part on Fox, doesn't have a baritone voice. He sang the part high. Is he a tenor? He must be a tenor. He's a professional (he took over as Aaron Burr in Hamilton after Leslie Odom, Jr. stepped down) and he has a ton of credits under his belt, but he wasn't a memorable Collins. Or maybe the problem was...
5. The cast wasn't singing at full voice. As Vox points out:
None of the cast had known during the dress rehearsal that the taping would wind up being broadcast — so many of them were “saving their voices.” This is a very common method of rehearsal, in which an actor will deliberately underperform by singing with less volume, so as not to tax their vocal cords before the “real” show.
This method can predictably result in performances that feel somewhat low-key, which makes sense: After all, it’s a rehearsal, not a full-throttle performance.
But Rent is nothing if not full-throttle, and viewers who tuned in to Fox on Sunday evening expecting the show to open with its usual hard-hitting energy were immediately aware, even before word began to spread that the show was largely pretaped, that something was ... off. Actors were clearly singing without much energy and off-key, and perhaps worst of all, the sound seemed to be very badly mixed.
6. Jordan Fisher as Mark was a stroke of casting genius. Let's end on a positive note, shall we? The character who narrates Rent is a white boy named Mark, originally played by Anthony Rapp, who reprised the part in the movie. As Refinery29 points out: "Since its Broadway debut in 1996, there have been many iterations of Rent but there's never been a black version of the character Mark Cohen. Until now." Jordan Fisher (on the far right in the photo at the top of this post) was one of the strongest performers in the show, commanding "La Vie Boheme" with an exuberance that looked effortless, sexy, and exciting. Everything he did looked effortless, sexy, and exciting.
To take another example: Here he is at the start of the number "Tango Maureen," in which he sings about what it was like to date his ex-girlfriend Maureen—sings it with a woman named Joanne who's currently dating Maureen.
Also fantastic in the cast: Kiersey Clemons as Joanne, Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen, and Tinashe as Mimi. The choreography by Sonya Tayeh was fantastic (except for whatever was up with Angel, though I blame that on Valentina's skill level). The set design I've already mentioned but may as well mention it again: Amazing work, Jason Sherwood. The director, Michael Greif, who also directed the original Broadway show: You're good. Producers: you let us down by not airing the show live. Wheelchair? Foot cast? So? It would have made the show better! It's about people dying, for god's sake!