Darlings, we’re being slammed in the face with SAG Awards red carpetry and we have a looming book deadline on the horizon, which means this post can only offer our scattered thoughts on last night’s production of Rent on FOX. We’ll have more to say about it in this week’s coming podcast, but we simply couldn’t let this day pass without typing a few of our impressions; partly because Rent meant a lot to us at one time and partly because the screwup on this one is about to become legendary and will probably have massive effects on any live musical theater performances on television going forward.
If there’s some chance you haven’t heard this by now, performer Brennin Hunt, who was cast as one of the primary characters in Roger, broke his foot hours before the show was supposed to air. Because the production didn’t hire or rehearse any understudies – a choice that strikes us as fairly insane – the show had to go on somehow, so instead of attempting to stage a televised production with one of the cast members in a wheelchair and foot cast the whole time, they aired the rehearsal footage shot the night before, with only the finale of the play being performed live.
It was kind of a disaster, to be honest.
As much as we want to rail against some of the casting decisions and some of the performances, it became extremely evident when they cut to the live finale that this cast was up to the task of delivering a kickass performance of Rent – when they know it’s being watched by a TV audience. Compounding the insanely bad idea of not rehearsing understudies, they also didn’t insist on a full-bore performance from all of the actors for the rehearsal – something they absolutely should have done if it was going to be their only backup plan. Unfortunately, it was clear that many of the performers – Brennin, Tinashe as Mimi and Jordan Fisher as Mark all marked their way through a good portion of their vocals – saved their best work for what they thought would be the following night’s live performance. Rent is a show that only works if it has highly energetic performers with really strong voices, enunciating every one of those infamously difficult lyrics to the back row. Listening to Fisher’s whispered, low-key performance gave us a newfound appreciation for Anthony Rapp’s nerdy, hyperactive, overenunciated Mark from the OG. Tinashe’s wavering and quivering vocals destroyed any chance of Mimi being portrayed as the self-destructive firebrand she is.
Fortunately, Brandon Victor Dixon was here to school everyone on how to give a performance. And Vanessa Hudgens did a fairly amazing job with Maureen, as did Kiersey Clemons with Joanne. And plopping Keala Settle in there as your featured soloist certainly paid off when the show needed it most. And of course, Drag Race fans held their collective breath to see if Valentina was going to deliver the goods as Angel. While her vocals got drowned out by the screaming crowds (another bad idea on the part of the direction), she held her own with the best voice in the cast on a couple of duets. Our only true disappointment with her performance was the air-drumming. Come on. Angel should have her damn drum solo right on stage.
As for the production itself, the stage was expansive and impressive, but we don’t think Rent needs to have those words attached to it. It’s a loud play about people living small lives. All of the skipping and running from one end of the massive venue to another kind of played against that idea of drug addicts and homeless people shuffling around the confines of a neighborhood. The music was too loud and overpowered the underperforming singers and as noted, the screaming concert-style crowd reactions were simply awful. And while the finale featuring the OG cast singing alongside the new cast was powerful and thrilling, it was almost impossible for a moment like that not to instill an emotional reaction in the audience. They all would have had to have been terrible to screw up a finale like that and they didn’t.
Still, there were more than a few moments in the taped portion that showed us what could have been if this cast had been allowed the opportunity to really give it their all after months of rehearsals. The cast gave what was by all accounts a pretty electrifying table read to the live audience while the taped portion played on TV. In retrospect, given their lack of planning and subsequent lack of options, they should have let the cast shine and aired the live portion, inexplicable wheelchair and all. Given Rent’s history and its status in Broadway legend as the epitome of the show going on after mishap strikes, this was a particularly ironic bad decision. What a disappointment that we’ll never see these artists truly giving it their all, consequences be damned. Isn’t that what Rent is all about, in the end?