Friday, February 1, 2019

A RENThead's Review of RENT Live or a RENTview, If You Will

Let's give a warm welcome to our newest guest contributor, Joseph Sheets! As a huge RENThead, it only makes sense his first post for us would be a review of Fox's RENT Live. 

“Tonight’s show is in mortal danger due to technical difficulties” is one of several new and updated lines which took place during Fox’s RENT Live production. Spoken by Mark Cohen, narrator of the show, the line is a grim foreshadowing about the problems that would plague the production. One of the leads had broken his foot during the final dress rehearsal, leading to Fox airing pre-recorded footage. Some people had trouble connecting to the live-stream, or had blackouts, missing the opening numbers. While unfortunate, the show did its best to recover. And though it’s more “pre-recorded” than live, it doesn’t lose any of its charm and is an absolute delight.

RENT tells the story of seven artists struggling in the Lower East Side in the early 90s. An updated version of Puccini’s La Boheme, the show is famous for its representation of LGBTQ+ characters, rock opera score, and how it handles the topics of homelessness and AIDS victims. The fact a show renowned for its grit and edginess somehow managed to air on Fox is amazing. The fact the majority of the book remained largely unchanged is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve seen a lot of hate for this production, and a lot of it seems unwarranted. Let’s break it down:


Any lyric changes, when made, usually served a practical purpose. They cut out the swearing which, while unfortunate, makes sense. The only song to noticeably suffer censorship is “On the Street”. Fortunately, they find substitutions to keep the rhyme scheme. It’s censored, but it’s the best they can do for TV, and I didn’t particularly miss the swearing, as I found the show didn’t lose any power for it. In fact, some of the creative changes they make to get around it are pretty clever. Instead of “The Clit Club”, Maureen stays and dances at “Pandora’s Box”, an equally explicit reference I’m amazed got by the censors. In one case, the lyric changes are definitely for the better. Benny’s line “Think twice before you poo-poo it” is changed to “think twice before you reject it.” Which will forever be superior. Trust me.

“La Vie Boheme” suffers the most changes, to no one’s surprise, but they’re fascinating nonetheless. “Dildos” becomes “latex”, a barely noticeable change, and the people are “puking” instead of “pissing” on their stoops every night, which is arguably worse. Gone is the waiter taking everyone’s orders, a funny and comedic moment, but not necessary. The “impromptu salon”, where the group of friends all take jabs at one another, takes on a different context. They’re not mourning Bohemia because, as Mark states, “Bohemia is now showing signs of life!” The characters now have established positions within Bohemia. Mimi is “the Minister of National Security and BDSM”, Roger is “the unofficial bard of Bohemia”, who still can’t help playing Musetta’s Waltz, and, as we all know, Maureen is “the reigning Queen.” These new lyrics are jarring on a first watch, especially to RENTheads who know the show backwards and forwards. But changing the lyrics doesn’t just change the words, it can also change the context. This is no longer a group of friends making self-deprecating jokes at each other. It’s a group of friends having fun and actively encouraging one another. “La Vie Boheme” truly becomes a celebration of life, and it’s entirely reflective of RENT as a whole.


What I love about the production are all the little moments they added. For instance, before “Life Support”, we are treated to a monologue given by RENT alum, Anthony Rapp. Said monologue details statistics about the number of deaths caused by AIDS. This helps give further context to the scenes, as 20 years later, RENT has aged, and distance from the issues has definitely impacted their relevance.

My favorite change was how they handled Angel. After she meets Collins and introduces herself, she explains: “At least, that’s what I’m going for this week.” She is not a drag queen anymore, but genderfluid, a wonderful modernization that tackles the question of Angel’s gender and solves it immediately. It’s clear she spent a long time figuring out how to present, for she adds: “I think this is the look, Collins.” It’s a lovely little scene that not only grants depth to Angel, but also enhances the show as a whole and is a welcome addition. These changes help breathe life into a twenty year old show and make it relevant again.

Another great scene I loved was the opening to Act 2. Traditionally, the cast comes out in a straight line and sings under spotlights “Seasons of Love”, the thesis of the show. This time, however, Mark opens the song, briefly wondering if he’ll lose his friends before walking around the set. The camera pans to a Life Support meeting, where a member receives support after a troubling diagnosis. He is told to take it “day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute”, before they list all the things he can measure his time in. It is a standout moment of the show, and a metric to which all other Act openers need to be measured. As iconic as the cast line is, this was poignant and was able to launch into “Happy New Year” seamlessly. There are dozens of little moments I can talk about, but these in particular are probably the most relevant and impactful.

Stage, Sound & Lighting

When the show opens, it begins much like the Broadway version: Mark is vowing to start a new film, Roger is tuning his guitar, and they’re both screening calls. After the little chat with Benny, however, and the power cuts out, the background of Mark and Roger’s apartment falls away. The audience is delighted to find the stage akin to a concert setup, with wide open space for the cast to run around in. There are several set pieces demarking different locations. There’s the loft, dilapidated and messy with a balcony which connects to a walkway Mimi walks through in “Out Tonight.” Thompkins Square Park, filled with a jungle gym and a carousel, where Angel and Collins play and croon their love for one another in “I’ll Cover You”. A street with storefronts for “Christmas Bells”, and the usual long table set up for the Life Cafe. All these set pieces work to create an actual space, not limited to the standard proscenium set up on most Broadway staging. As a result, RENT feels like a community. This isn’t just one space meant to represent a myriad of locations, but rather a myriad of locations that just so happen to be in the same space.

Understandably, the score wasn’t changed, except for some song cuts where things were shortened. The band played along, and the cast wasn’t drowned out. Rather, they had to compete with the shouts of excitable RENTheads screaming and cheering. What was refreshing, though, was the way each character sang these familiar songs in exciting new ways. Mario, playing Benny provides playful and exciting riffs in “You’ll See”, while Jordan Fisher’s Mark has interesting inflections during “La Vie Boheme”, hitting an impressive high note while singing “...dear old mom and dad”. The inflections and the choices and how the actors sing them are always fun and unique, and though you can tell some of them were probably holding back vocally, they all sound great.

Lighting was eclectic as always. “Rent”, the titular number was full of shining lights flashing as the cast thrashed about on stage. “Will I?” and “Without You” feature a somber blue light backdropping the cast. The pink light signaling Angel’s triumphant entrance returns from the Broadway production and remains through “Today 4 U”, shining up the background while Angel catwalks. Admittedly, some of the lighting and sound draw heavily from the Broadway production, but when shining on these new set pieces, the show feels more dynamic than ever.


RENT has eight main characters, and each cast member brought something new to the table that I thought provided a take on some of the characters we’ve never seen before. Brennin Hunt, who plays Roger Davis, probably sounds closest to his OBC counterpart. He’s got a rough edge to his tone and looks the part, with his painted nails and tattoos. He hits all the notes in “One Song Glory”, which is probably Roger’s most iconic moment. It’s a shame the actor broke his foot during this performance, but even during the finale, with Roger in a boot, he still belts out a sorrowful “MIMI”. He also doesn’t kiss her after “Your Eyes”, a change I liked (I always thought it was weird they had Roger kiss her. Like, I get the power of love saves her but she’s DYING). He’s a solid Roger all around, and it’s a shame this production was held back by his injury. Feel better, Mr. Hunt.

Mark Cohen, played by Jordan Fisher, is probably the farthest from his original counterpart. Instead of white, Jewish, nerdy Mark, we get a much cooler, still Jewish, multiracial Mark. Fisher is much more introspective as Mark, largely thanks to the addition of extra narration. He also performs the most sorrowful version of “Halloween” I’ve ever seen, nearly bursting into tears (and making me cry alongside him). But he’s not without his humorous moments: between awkwardly leaving the lovers Angel and Collins alone, to rejecting Alexi’s call with a blank, “It’s too hot to answer you.” And lastly he can dance, showing off his stuff as he fights to lead with Joanne during their shared number, “Tango: Maureen”, and leading the bohemians in the drastically different “La Vie Boheme” He’s a triple threat and a standout member of this cast.

Mimi Marquez is played by Tinashe. I particularly liked this version of Mimi, because she actually looks the part. I’ve seen several versions of Mimi perform the role, and I never quite believe them when they say they’re 19. But Tinashe does. Mimi, in my experience falls into two categories: Either the raspy, rough sounding Mimi started by Daphne Rubin-Vega, or a softer, sweeter Mimi, reminiscent of the movie’s Rosario Dawson. Tinashe’s Mimi is definitely the latter. But that’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite match the vocal power of some other Mimis. To make up for that, her acting is spot on. Her “Light My Candle” is sassy and flirtatious, and she’s clearly having the time of her life belting “Out Tonight”, even though I got the sense she was holding back. Her and Hunt have fantastic chemistry together in all their numbers, and really sell the relationship. She’s one of my favorite characters in the show, and I can’t say I was disappointed.

Tom Collins is played by Brandon Victor Dixon. He, like Fisher, is another cast standout. But that’s hardly a surprise, especially when you’ve seen his performance in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. The man can sing anything, and considering he’s played Collins before in the 2012 Off-Broadway revival, he’s got the part on LOCK. His numbers are all incredibly entertaining. His “Santa Fe” is charming, and it’s neat to see Collins making friends with everyone he meets. He’s incredibly loving in “I’ll Cover You”, and the way he looks at Angel just warms my heart. His big number comes in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”, where he sorrowfully sings at the funeral. Dixon’s level of talent makes you want to rip your heart out of your chest just to make it stop hurting, because it’s impossible to watch him and not feel sad. And that’s the point. The man does his job, and does it well.

Angel is played by Valentina. Valentina, to me, is a curious choice for Angel. Vocally, they can’t compete with the others, which is somewhat unfortunate. Especially given it’s a musical. But they can act, and the choices they make as Angel are unique. First, there are all the scenes added about Angel’s genderfluidity, which I LOVED, as stated earlier. You can see Valentina busting their acting chops, and they’re so adorable and fabulous, it’s hard not to love them. Even when they’re straining to hit the notes in “Today 4 U”, they’re engaging, sashaying up and down the set. Their “I’ll Cover You” is much more forgiving, even though they tend to get a bit overpowered by Collins. I appreciate Valentina as Angel, because they helped cast the character of Angel in an entirely new light, and I hope we get more genderfluid Angels in the future.

Maureen Johnson is played by Vanessa Hudgens. No stranger to RENT, she starred as Mimi in the 2010 Hollywood Bowl production. Her reviews were less than stellar as Mimi, but Hudgens is older, wiser, and far more suited for the role of Maureen. Of all the cast, she’s the one who I felt was the strongest. Hudgens’s Maureen is a woman who is completely unapologetic, refusing to compromise who she is. I’ve seen Maureens who try to make her more sympathetic, or make her feel guilty about some of her choices. Hudgens does no such thing. When she’s singing “Take me for what I am…” she MEANS it, and doesn’t back down. She is fire and passion, and she performed without holding anything back. This is best exemplified by her “Over the Moon.” A performance piece done by Maureen to protest the eviction of the homeless, Hudgens’ version is best described as “Maureen on crack.” And it’s a good thing. You can tell she’s a theatre kid at heart, because she gives it everything she has. Her cowprint pants and cow helmet help sell her protest, but when she gets harnessed and flies, going over the moon in a literal way, it’s obvious Hudgens is having the time of her life and is the best Maureen I’ve ever seen.

Joanne is played by Kiersey Clemons, and you can tell Clemons took the time to really think about her character. Her Joanne is one who has a softer, vulnerable side. You wouldn’t notice at first, the way she commands and leads Mark in their “tango”, continuing to take charge even as he tries to lead, but as Maureen’s infidelity rears its ugly head, you can see the tough facade start to fade. “We’re Okay”, her solo number, has a brief window where you can see her visibly trying not to cry as she struggles to keep it all together. Her Joanne clearly has a soft spot for Maureen, which turns into righteous anger during the couple’s argument. She easily manages to match Hudgens as they perform “Take Me or Leave Me”, which is no easy feat, and you can see how hurt she is, even as she’s fighting back. Clemons’s Joanne is made all the stronger for her vulnerability, and she’s a very endearing version of Joanne.

Mario, who plays Benjamin Coffin III, is an enjoyable Benny. One of the drawbacks of RENT is unfortunately Benny doesn’t get as much screen time as the others, but what he does get to do, Mario does well. He has a smooth voice, and peppers his numbers with all these fantastic little riffs. It’d be easy to go overboard, but he doesn’t. His Benny is a chill Benny, who isn’t much of a jerk as how he’s usually portrayed. Rather, he seems to try to sell his idea of a Cyberarts Studio quite honestly, even bringing a sketchbook with drawings to show the gang. He’s a bit of jerk for demanding a year’s worth of rent at once, sure, but you can tell he’s frustrated when his former friends don’t take his deal to stop the protest. Benny often gets cast as the villain of the show, but I didn’t see anything villainous about Mario’s performance. Rather, he just portrayed Benny as a person. Not without flaws, mind you, but this was a very sympathetic version of the character.

I’d be remiss not to talk about the ensemble. Keala Settle is fantastic playing the Life Support Leader, Roger’s mom, and of course, the female soloist for “Seasons of Love”. Alexi Darling, played by J. Elaine Marcos, is as hyper and demanding as she’s always been. Emerson Collins was easily a standout choice for me, as we watch his character Steve lead the Life Support Group in “Will I?” He looks so distraught and upset, it’s hard not to be moved. It’s a highlight moment of the show, especially because we can see him close up, Karposi’s Sarcoma and all. The thousand yard stare he gives the camera is enough to break your heart. The cast all comes together to sing “Seasons of Love” when the show ends, where they are all joined by members of the original Broadway production. With Idina Menzel as the female vocalist, and Jesse L. Martin (joined by Dixon) singing the male soloist part, it’s a treat for any RENThead, young or old.

Everyone in the cast brings something new to the role, be it a new interpretation or new inflections or acting choices. It’s not more of the same, which is good, because there’s nothing quite like seeing fresh faces in a role.


Despite all these fantastic qualities, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the production’s flaws. Aside from the unfortunately injury Hunt sustained that made this show mostly pre-recorded, there were some other things I took issue with.

The first of two major flaws takes place in Act 2. After the gang has splintered apart, Mark and Roger duet on “What You Own”. The number is a rousing anthem about following your dreams. Mark quits his job at Buzzline to focus on his film, and Roger realizes Mimi is his muse and decides to return home after running away to Santa Fe. Traditionally, Mark and Roger end the number by singing “You’re not alone, I’m not alone” in beautiful harmonies before reuniting, but the RENT Live version undercuts the touching moment in favor of a concert set up, complete with stage diving into the crowd. I can understand why they did that; Act 2 is incredibly taxing and some catharsis is necessary after “Contact”, “I’ll Cover You”, and “Goodbye Love”, but the concert set up completely detracts from all the characterization formerly presented. They are not Mark and Roger having their epiphanies, but Fisher and Hunt entertaining a crowd. Though they’re having a blast, and the crowd is loving it, it completely halts the story in its tracks.

The other flaw has to do with the conclusion of Benny’s story. As mentioned earlier, Benny suffers the most from having the least to do. The ending of the show sets up breadcrumbs for a redemption of sorts: He tries to keep the peace at Angel’s funeral, he pays for the service, and then offers to pay for Mimi’s rehab, even knowing she’s in love with Roger. Unfortunately, the breadcrumbs don’t lead anywhere in the Live version. After “Goodbye Love”, Benny disappears from the story. He isn’t even mentioned in the finale. The Broadway production explains his absence: Benny was pulled from Alphabet City after Muffy (Alison!) found out about his relationship with Mimi. But that’s not the case in the live production, where the explanation is replaced by Roger and Mark being chummy, and Mark being glad about Roger’s return (which makes me all the more annoyed at “What You Own”. YOU COULD HAVE DONE BOTH, FOX!)  What’s especially baffling to me is Benny doesn’t get the same treatment Angel does. Like Angel, Benny could have had little scenes exploring his character and further developing it. There could have easily been a scene after “What You Own” where he calls the guys to make amends, or offers them free rent for a year, which would work nicely with the cyclical nature of the show. Now you can argue it would alter the intention of Jonathan Larson’s work, and I’d be inclined to agree, but I think it’s better than just having Benny disappear. Fox already changed so much. Would giving Benny a proper conclusion done any harm?


We’ll never know what would have happened had Hunt not broken his foot. It was a shame we didn’t get to see RENT Live, but to say what we got is bad is insulting to all the hard work everyone put into this production. Especially because this production embodies so much about what makes RENT the legendary work of theatre that it is. We got to see footage of an amazing cast, and then we got to see them do the finale live.  The show went on, despite the drawbacks, and I think it’s a damn good one. I sincerely recommend this version to anyone who’s never seen the show before. It’s vibrant and charming, despite its flaws. And to those detractors, I ask you to watch it again with an open mind. If it’s still not for you, there’s always RENT Filmed Live on Broadway, or the 2005 movie. But I hope you’ll give RENT Live a chance. Remember, no artistic work is perfect, and I think RENT Live stands out despite its flaws and mishaps.         

{Editor's note: The night RENT Live was supposed to go on, the cast did a concert version for all the people in attendance. Here's a clip of Brandon Victor Dixon and the cast singing "I'll Cover You (Reprise)."}

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