Expectations were high. At least, *my* expectations for Rent: Live on Fox were almost as high as my inevitably maniacal range of emotions. Hysterics were expected. This is a groundbreaking musical about young people taken too soon by a senseless disease. It’s about the magic that can happen when you actually tell stories of queer, diverse people – at a time when those stories were barely being told at all. But it’s also a story that is very specific to its time. It’s a musical that became such a specific snapshot of its era – late 80s, early 90s— that the watercooler conversation today about Rent: Live should have been one or two things, along with, “how much did Kathleen and Duana cry?”
One: how does Rent – its messages, its lyrics, and its spirit –hold up in 2019?
Or two: how did the current cast do with the retelling and reinterpreting of these iconic characters so many of us grew up with and know like family?
Those two questions are not the overwhelming story today about Rent on Fox, a show I’m hesitant to keep referring to as Rent: Live because we know it wasn’t exactly that. By now, you know that Rent’s Roger, Brennin Hunt, broke his foot during rehearsal and they had to air mostly rehearsal footage instead of going ahead with the planned live show.
When Fox announced the cast of Rent: Live I was deliriously excited and skeptical, sure, but cautiously optimistic. Overall, I thought they could pull it off. Because of the cast, I wrote with confidence at the time that “I don’t think Rent: Live is going to be a disaster”.
Famous last words.
Listen, Rent on Fox wasn’t a complete disaster. It just wasn’t LIVE. That news was deflating. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning finding out that Santa didn’t show. This wasn’t the live production we were promised, dammit. Duana is going to go deep into the ways in which that big important detail affected Rent: “Live” and ended up giving the audience some things I’m sure the cast and crew didn’t intend for us to see but first, let’s talk about the things they did want us to see, or the elements of the show we watched that would have gone exactly according to plan, whether Brennin broke his foot or not.
The plan was always to have Jordan Fisher play Mark. It was a plan I was on board with, in theory. I think about five minutes into our live blog I wrote that Jordan Fisher is a STAR. He is. He’s so likable and warm. He oozes charisma and a bashful magnetism. You can’t take your eyes off of him. The problem: he’s playing MARK, a loner documentarian who observes from the outside looking in.
The crux of Mark’s character is that he’s an outcast even within his own group of friends. The trouble with Jordan Fisher is that it’s hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t want to be this guy’s friend. That’s a really good quality to have for so many of the roles he’s going to get in the future, and I don’t want to knock the kid’s talent. Like I said, he’s a STAR but I kept forgetting he was supposed to be a pessimistic nerdy tech geek. In scenes where Mark is supposed to come off as a grating nuisance almost exploiting the lives of a community he doesn’t belong to for his “work,” Jordan was being adorable, and it took me away from those feelings I usually associate with Mark.
Maybe the problem is nostalgia, and not Jordan Fisher. Mark was originally played by Anthony Rapp, a white guy, and historically, Mark has never been played by a black performer. In an interview with Esquire, Jordan described Mark like this:
“He is the quintessential white Jewish boy from upstate New York: moves to Alphabet City [who] chooses the life of a starving artist.”
Are you rolling your eyes? We’re supposed to roll our eyes at Mark! Here’s how Jordan explains why he’s always wanted to play the character:
“To me... how cool would it be to challenge the idea of Mark being a Jewish man and born into privilege, but also a man of color.”
Again, I am into this in theory. One of the biggest critiques of Rent is that the story essentially revolves around the only two straight white men in the musical: Mark and Roger. I like the idea of *not* centering the straight white guy, for once, but when Roger calls out Mark in “Goodbye Love” for “detach[ing] from feeling alive,” it reminded us that that’s not really the Mark that Jordan Fisher had been playing. They also chose to drop this quintessential Roger to Mark line:
For someone who longs for a community of his own
Who's with his camera, alone?
Shots fired. I love this lyric because it sums up EXACTLY who Mark is. He’s on the outside looking in at a community he doesn’t belong to, and he’s documenting them for his personal pet project. He’s what you might call in 2019 a #problematicfave. I’ll go back to nostalgia here because newcomers to Rent will know nothing about Anthony Rapp’s Mark (or Idina Menzel’s Maureen, or Jesse L. Martin’s Collins, etc) and so Jordan Fisher’s Mark is their introduction. Jordan Fisher’s Mark is a curious ally hoping to share the stories of his loved ones with the world. There’s an update that could have used some lyric changes to convey. And, you know, they would have still had Roger reppin’ for the selfish white dudes.
“Lemme play you this song I wrote real quick before you die of AIDS” is the white dudest thing of all white dude things that ever white duded #rentlive— Justin “Hoops” McElroy (@JustinMcElroy) January 28, 2019
If you’re a Renthead, you know that there were some glaring changes to Jonathan Larson’s OG words, and at many times they seemed completely arbitrary – not to do with changing keys or notes so actors could hit them. In “Life Support,” they changed the line from "reason says I should have died 3 years ago," to "six months ago." I can’t justify that change like I can, say, the dinner order in “La Vie Boheme,” which I assume was cut for timing. Other lyrics (like F bombs) were dropped because they were trying to make a musical about LGBTQ+ expression, sex and death palatable for a network TV audience. But most of the time, these changes didn’t seem to follow any sort of rhyme (see what I did there?) or reason.
As Variety put it, “No “dildo” … but “f--gots, lezzies, d-kes” made the cut? Oh, to be a fly on the wall in these lyrics negotiations…” I wonder what kind of people were in those negotiations? Do I even need to guess? I should note that one theory is that some of the show was post 9PM so that may have affected the censorship.
STILL, why would they keep “sodomy” and “muchol masturbation” in “La Vie Boheme” but change Benny’s (an uneven Mario, bless his heart) line in “You’ll See Boys” from…
You need somewhere to do it
Think twice before you pooh-pooh it
You need somewhere to perfect it
Think twice before you reject it.
HUH? Whether or not a broken foot had sucked some of the energy out of the broadcast, these lyric changes would have left real Rent fans scratching their heads. It just seemed woefully unnecessary and distracting from some otherwise STRONG production choices.
I loved the throwback to Mark’s OG sweater. Overall, I thought the wardrobe choices were solid. Don’t get me started on Benny’s yellow jacket. I’m obsessed. I also like the updates detailed in Vanity Fair to Angel’s character to reflect Valentina’s identification as non-binary.
These are the choices Rent: Live made on purpose, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. The themes and messages of Rent DO hold up and there were flashes of brilliance – moments that proved bringing this musical back in 2019 was a good idea. The biggest moment for me was the reunion of the Original Broadway Cast (or as theatre nerds like Duana call them, the OBC). At this point, my fan girl jumped right out. Teenage Kathleen was trying not to break sh-t. She was also sobbing uncontrollably at this moment:
Idina Menzel stood right next to her ex-husband Taye Diggs looking fine as hell and then belted her face off like her vocal cords were still in 1996 and THAT is the energy I'm going to carry into 2019. #RentLive— moira rose wannabe (@mollzlols) January 28, 2019
For the “Seasons of Love” encore, the entire OBC, along with exes Idina and Taye, was back on stage to belt out Rent’s seminal classic with their present-day counterparts. Jesse L. Martin and Brandon Victor Dixon almost took me out. Vanessa Hudgens (once again, the MVP – Duana is going to yell at you about her soon) and Idina hugging was a spectacular shot. These moments were planned, but they became extra moving because they were the few true live moments of the show. And well, LOOK AT THEM. It’s the final seconds of a show that didn’t go according to plan but the emotions, the feelings and the voices – GOD, THE VOICES – were exactly what they wanted us to see and feel. Now, imagine we had this kind of energy the whole show? Does that make you as sad as it makes me?