Reading the casting announcement for Rent: Live! was a journey of emotions –five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred journeys to be exact. That is just the first of many cringe-inducing Rent references I will make in this post. I am not sorry. Normally, I don’t love judging casts before we’ve seen what they can do - it feels unfair - but the Rent: Live! cast is so full of wonderful, weird and LOL WHAT? surprises that I can’t help it. I have to judge.
As you know, Rent follows a group of ragtag misfits living in Alphabet City who refuse to pay (last year’s, this year’s, next year’s) rent. Each of these characters is beloved. If you love Rent as much as I do, you know these characters like they are family. All I ask is for a group of performers who can do them justice. I love live musicals when they are done right (Grease: Live, The Wiz Live!) but when they go wrong (The Sound Of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!) they go SO WRONG. The good news? I don’t think Rent: Live! is going to be a disaster. Based on this cast announcement alone, we’re at least working with people who can sing and act (hopefully) better than Carrie Underwood and Allison Williams, bless their hearts.
Go on the journey with me and watch the casting announcement like I did, unfolding character by character, with the backdrop of the cold Bohemian hell of the MTA.
Guess which ones I had the most physical reaction to? I GUFFAWED. We’ll come back there. Let’s start with Mark and Roger, the seminal bromance at the center of Rent. Jordan Fisher will be playing Mark. I LOVE this choice. Mark is nerdy and whiny and yet, he’s adorable and endearing. He is typically played by a white actor but who the eff cares because the character of Mark is all about his essence. Jordan Fisher has Mark’s essence. You may remember him from winning Dancing with the Stars last season or from Grease: Live. He also played John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton on Broadway in HAMILTON. He’s got the pedigree. He’s got the chops. I’M IN on Jordan Fisher.
Roger will be played by Brennin Hunt, who fits the look of a moody rock star suffering from writer’s block. I know nothing about him other than that he had a small stint on X-Factor and appeared on one episode of Nashville. Hey, it’s a living. My fave rendition of “One Song Glory” was sung by Aaron Tveit during Rent at the Hollywood Bowl (directed by Neil Patrick Harris) so it’s going to take a lot to top that for me but I don’t know enough about Brennin to doubt him. I have no expectations. That’s going to work in his favour.
Next up, we’ve got Kiersey Clemons as Joanne and Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen. I know Kiersey as a delightful scene-stealer in movies like Dope and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Again, I know nothing about her vocal chops but I like her. As for Vanessa, here’s where I pause. I mentioned Rent at the Hollywood Bowl above. Vanessa played Mimi. She was, um, NOT great. However, as we know, Vanessa was the breakout star of Grease: Live. She’s no stranger to musicals (Gabriella Montez for life!) but I don’t think we knew she could do all of THAT before Grease: Live. Still, she is no Idina Menzel. Maureen is a harder role to pull off than Mimi. I’m not sure if she has the range. I hope, just like with Grease, she proves me wrong.
Let’s move on to the main event: BRANDON. VICTOR. DIXON as Collins! I squealed. Lainey and Duana saw Brandon first. He was their Aaron Burr when they saw Hamilton (I am forever jealous because the weakest link in the cast of Hamilton that I saw was my Burr). Brandon is already a pro at this. Duana called him a “revelation” in the live production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He is the PERFECT Collins. I can’t f-cking wait.
Angel is the beating heart of Rent. This casting is KEY. I didn’t watch Valentina’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race but my friend Brian is a Drag Race super fan and he isn’t sold on Valentina. She’s gotta sell “Today 4 U.” That song is ALL sass. I think it’s a brilliant move to cast a reality star with a massive following in a broadcast like this but Valentina better come through and do Angel justice.
OK, now about those guffaws. They were caused by these two announcements:
MARIO. And TINASHE. I am deceased. Who died? ME, not Evita the Akita. I don’t dislike either of these choices, I am just surprised. First of all, good for Mario. The last time I remember thinking about Mario was during my annual viewing of Step Up. Mario is playing Benny (originated by Taye Diggs), a boring-ass stiff of a character who had the audacity to try to force his tenants to abide by the law and pay rent. Benny’s the worst. Halfway through Rent, Benny is basically forgotten. Mario and Benny have so much in common.
Vocally, Mimi is always the weakest link of the Rent cast. See: Rosario Dawson in the film version. Mimi also has one of the hardest songs in the whole musical. “Out Tonight” is a bop but it’s HARD. Try doing that sh-t at karaoke. Tinashe is a great dancer and she’s got a good voice. IF she can act (she’s got some TV credits like Two and A Half Men and Empire), she might be the best Mimi we’ve seen in years. You know, not including that time I saw Rent on Broadway with Tamyra Gray from OG American Idol as Mimi. Have I mentioned I LOVE RENT? Tinashe reads REAL young but don’t forget, Mimi is supposed to be 19. She’s just old for her age. Again, not sorry.
Rounding out the cast is Keala Settle who will sing “Seasons of Love.” Keala made us all sob at the Oscars with “This Is Me.” I’m going to be a puddle on my couch on January 27th. To apathy! To entropy! To empathy! OK, I’m done.