In today’s scattered pop culture landscape, live television continues to offer a glimpse into the monoculture of yesteryear. Even as they suffer from declining ratings, hotly anticipated events such as the Super Bowl and the Oscars — along with more frequent happenings such as “Saturday Night Live” — continue to be some of the most-watched fare on television. The live musical is no different, which is why major networks have poured resources into them for the past few years.
Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” the beloved musical based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” about a group of young artists living in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic, was a natural fit for Fox’s latest stab at live musical theater. It became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history after debuting in 1996.
There was just one issue: Most of Fox’s airing of “Rent: Live” on Sunday night wasn’t actually live.
Brennin Hunt, who plays the HIV-positive songwriter Roger Davis, one of the male leads, broke his foot toward the end of Saturday night’s rehearsal (insert requisite “break a leg” joke here). Hunt, using a wheelchair, couldn’t meet the show’s physical demands, and Fox didn’t employ any understudies. Deciding the show must go on, the network aired the entirety of that dress rehearsal, clipping on about 10 minutes of Sunday’s actual live performance (featuring a sitting Hunt) at the end.
The resulting Frankenstein’s monster of a production didn’t fare well, especially during its first half — and that’s looking past the fact that there’s something inherently exciting about a live performance (much of it felt like watching a football game on delay; some spark is simply missing, illogical as that might be). The majority of the issues were connected to the actual production, which should have been easily circumvented, given that it was prerecorded.
The sound, for example, was wildly off. On “Today 4 U,” the first solo number by Angel (Valentina of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame), the studio audience clapped along to the beat loudly enough to drown out the lyrics. And though Brandon Victor Dixon deserves special recognition for his powerful portrayal of Tom Collins, his shining moment was muted by poor mixing. It comes after (23-year-old spoiler alert) Angel’s death, during the heartbreaking reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” Dixon’s voice bursts with emotion, but his powerful baritone is stepped on by an aggressive piano. Confoundingly, the first time the show had clear sound production was during its last 10 to 15 minutes, when it was live.
One way for theater performances to stand out on television is to really open them up. “Rent: Live” attempted to capitalize on an enormous set, a giant set of squares covered in scaffolding and surrounded on all sides by cheering audience members. But in place of the intended wonder was simply confusion. Anyone unfamiliar with the settings throughout “Rent” probably wouldn’t know if we were in Roger and Mark’s apartment, Mimi’s strip club or on the streets of the East Village.
The frantic camera, which had all the energy (and unexpected motion) of a roller coaster certainly didn’t clarify things. On “Will I?,” the camera zoomed through the set’s labyrinth of scaffolding to dizzying effect, not only nauseating the viewers but sapping the emotional energy from a somber song about the fear of dying an undignified death from AIDS.
The situation was particularly unfortunate for the actors, who will now be judged on what they thought was a rehearsal — a fact that became even more obvious after watching clips that leaked onto Twitter from Sunday’s live performance. Jordan Fisher proved to be a reliable narrator, giving a spunky if unassuming performance as Mark Cohen (though he lacks his signature sweater, which appears in the background in one scene as an Easter egg for “Rent”-heads). Meanwhile, R&B singer Tinashe gave a forcefully physical performance as the AIDS-stricken junkie and exotic dancer Mimi Márquez.
But the show’s energy often bordered on lethargic, feeling like the dress rehearsal it was. That is, until Vanessa Hudgens showed up as Maureen Johnson, the bisexual performance artist with a difficulty remaining faithful to her romantic partners. Hudgens, a veteran of the televised live musical after appearing in “Grease: Live,” gave a thrilling and shameless portrayal of Maureen, who struck the stage like a bolt of lighting, shocking everyone around her into life as the first act concluded and leading to a much livelier second act. (It didn’t hurt that, unlike many of her peers, she can both sing and act.)
The circumstances of Sunday’s telecast are particularly unfortunate considering the inherent hurdles “Rent” had to overcome to appear on network television at all. Part of the musical’s immense appeal has always been its rawness, the way it discussed issues that didn’t appear in mainstream culture — including the AIDS epidemic, drug use and taboo (at least in the 1990s) relationships. That most of it remained uncensored is a minor miracle, though aspects of it were toned down, to the chagrin of many die-hard fans. Changing an expletive-laden line from “Tango: Maureen” or removing one of the, erm, more personal items mentioned in “La Vie Bohème” doesn’t change the show’s overall message — but any alterations to be in compliance with the Federal Communications Commission does smack of a sad sense of irony.
Most disappointing is the simple fact that the audience had only a few minutes to experience the live version of this production, and it was the best aspect of the show. Fox would do well to release footage of the full performance that took place Sunday night, broken foot and all. Because, as is quickly learned by following #RentNotQuiteLive on Twitter, there’s a hungry fan base, just waiting.