First, let me say for context that you could show me a gaggle of poisoned subway rats performing Rent and I’d toss my money at it like it was my retirement fund. That’s how much I love this show, this story, and its history. I’ve slept on pavement to be the first in line for rush tickets to see it performed both on and off Broadway, corresponded with strangers online for ticket hookups in the pre-Stubhub days, spent all the money earned in various after-school ventures to pay my way to shows in whatever city I could feasibly get to as a teenager, and all but wrote in stone that my future child would be named Jonathan Larson.
Which may explain how I ended up spending $100 to watch Fox’s overly polished televised version of Rent Live last night at a bar in the East Village. I saw the opportunity to watch Rent “alongside the show’s original Mimi, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and the staff of the New York Theatre Workshop” (where Rent got its start), and only later noticed I’d spent $100 on a television event that turned out to be barely live, and which beyond that, felt too glossy to remain true to the original. To top it off, Rubin-Vega wasn’t in attendance because she, along with the rest of the original cast, was called out of town for a cameo in Rent Live.
The show starred former pop-star Mario as Benny, professional live-television musical performer Jordan Fisher as Mark, singer Tinashe as Mimi, young actress Kiersey Clemons as Joanne, former Hamilton star Brandon Victor Dixon as Collins, Rupaul’s Drag Race star Valentina as Angel, and a mix of pre- and post- injury Brennin Hunt as Roger. Yes, Hunt broke his foot during dress rehearsal, and so parts of the Live television event that Fox aired were actually recordings of that dress rehearsal, before he became mostly wheelchair-bound. The only actually live parts happened during the final scene, in which Hunt sang “Your Eyes” to Tinashe’s Mimi, with his leg elevated in a very thick cast. That part was great.
In this rare live moment from the “Live” production, the cast was more emotive, their vocals were crisper, and the true energy of a live event could be felt. But my issues with the show were less with not seeing the live performances, which were all over Twitter, and more to do with how over-polished the whole production was.
As I sat in an East Village dive bar among super fans and New York Theatre Workshop members who were swapping stories of their pal Jonathan Larson and how this show came to be, I remembered why it was so effective. Rent is gritty, emotional, raw, and far from the traditional Andrew Lloyd Webber fever dream that most Broadway musicals feel like. It was born from the real life atrocities that affected struggling artists and vagabonds who found their family among the streets I’d just walked. That’s Rent. The Rent we were watching just felt too glamorous. Rent Live’s Collins, a struggling philosophy professor with AIDS, was wearing Red Wings, a boot that cost about $300. Tinashe’s Mimi had a beautiful smile that surely cost thousands of dollars, and Angel, when not in drag, wore makeup that was so perfect he could have done YouTube tutorials. Even the decision to show the more polished dress rehearsal version of the play instead of the live version — wheelchair and all — felt like proof that this was more about the aesthetics of the original than Rent’s story.
Thankfully, though, Jonathan Larson’s lyrics (when not butchered by television censorship) are powerful enough to withstand this Hollywood buffing. And really, most things can be saved by an extremely rare appearance by my founding mothers and fathers, the original Broadway cast of Rent (Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Freddie Walker, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Idina Menzel were all there). Finally, as their voices washed over me, I was able to excuse the watered-down, Instagram-ready version of Rent that was being introduced to a new generation of potential theater geeks. But the truth is, inauthentic as it may have been, I’ll probably watch it again.