clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fox’s Rent Live should have been a force to reckon with. It was a clusterfuck.

Rent should be an incandescent fire of hard-won anger and hope. But its “live” flame barely got to flicker.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Fox’s highly anticipated live — or should we say, hardly “live” at all — performance of the Broadway musical Rent aired on Sunday night, and it was kind of a disaster.

In the show’s final dress rehearsal on Saturday, actor Brennin Hunt, who was playing one of the show’s main characters, Roger, badly injured his ankle. This unfortunate accident, which is the type of thing that can happen to even the best actors and the most well-oiled productions, shouldn’t have started the downward spiral that it did.

Unfortunately and inexplicably, however, the production didn’t have understudies, so there was no one in the cast who was prepared to step in at the last minute.

This left Rent Live scrambling to pick up the pieces and figure out how it would air live, as promised.

And its weird hybrid solution resulted in a completely bizarre experience for its viewers both in the theater and at home — and left many people scratching their heads about why the production didn’t just do some very obvious things differently instead.

Following a cast member’s injury, Fox chose to air a pretaped version of Rent “Live”

Rent Live’s producers had taped the show’s final dress rehearsal before Sunday’s scheduled live performance. That’s not unusual, since camera crews need to rehearse too. What is unusual is that after Hunt got hurt, the production team decided to air pretaped footage from the dress rehearsal instead of actually delivering the promised “live” musical to its TV viewers.

There were immediately several problems with this choice. For starters, none of the cast had known during the dress rehearsal that the taping would wind up being broadcast — so many of them were “saving their voices.” This is a very common method of rehearsal, in which an actor will deliberately underperform by singing with less volume, so as not to tax their vocal cords before the “real” show.

This method can predictably result in performances that feel somewhat low-key, which makes sense: After all, it’s a rehearsal, not a full-throttle performance.

But Rent is nothing if not full-throttle, and viewers who tuned in to Fox on Sunday evening expecting the show to open with its usual hard-hitting energy were immediately aware, even before word began to spread that the show was largely pretaped, that something was ... off. Actors were clearly singing without much energy and off-key, and perhaps worst of all, the sound seemed to be very badly mixed.

(According to TVLine, viewers at home were informed during the show’s first commercial break that most of the broadcast would be pretaped footage from Saturday’s dress rehearsal.)

Additionally, as you can hear in the excerpt below, the rehearsal’s in-theater audience treated the show like a rock concert instead of a Broadway performance that would then air on television, which meant that actors who were already under-singing and undermixed were easily drowned out by the crowd.

The combined impact of actors underperforming and bizarrely poor sound quality was that viewers at home were a mix of amused (lots of “no day but last night” jokes), baffled, angry, and generally underwhelmed by what was happening on their TV screens.

But to make all of this even weirder, there was a live performance of Rent happening onstage — and it was awesome!

The national at-home audience was forced to sit through a pretaped dress rehearsal — while in the theater, the production went through with a different live performance.

Yep, you read that right. While viewers at home were trying to make sense of the muffled train wreck happening on their screens, there was a live performance happening in the theater, where an audience was assembled for what was initially supposed to be the live broadcast. With Hunt singing live for that audience from a wheelchair as the pretaped rehearsal was broadcast on a screen, the show had gone on. And not only was it on, it sounded incredible:

And at the end of the evening, viewers watching on television saw the pretaped rehearsal switch over to what was happening in the live theater, where the cast was joined by most of the original Broadway cast of Rent. And lo, that was the real moment we’d all been waiting for:

It also really emphasized the fact that while people at home were scratching their heads wondering whether the sound settings on their TVs were broken, they could have been watching something much better instead.

3 no-brainers that could have saved Rent Live

Hunt’s unfortunate and ill-timed injury and everything that came afterward made it painfully clear that there were three jaw-droppingly obvious things that could have been done differently here, each of which would have saved this production.

1) Hiring understudies

This one is so simple, it hurts. There’s a reason every Broadway production is stacked with understudies and swings (cast members who can “swing” in and out of various smaller roles). Accidents happen. Actors lose their voices. Emergencies occur. (Remember when Vanessa Hudgens — who appeared in Sunday’s production of Rent as Maureen — had to perform Fox’s Grease Live just hours after the death of her father in 2016? Yep; there were no understudies for that production, either.)

2) Just airing the live performance, complete with Hunt in his wheelchair

Fox should have aired the amazing live performance — the actual Rent Live the audience thought it would be getting. Given that the only major difference in the experience was that one of the cast members was in a wheelchair, it seems completely inexplicable — not to mention ableist — to have decided to air a taped dress rehearsal instead.

Even if the choice was based on the difficulty of adjusting the camera work, it would have been a small price to pay for the sake of bringing a full-throated, energized cast to TV screens across country, not to mention giving us a Roger whose (temporary) disability added welcome relatability — something that’s frequently a problem for the character anyway, given that he can easily come across as selfish and abrasive. Plus, seeing the lead of a musical performing in a wheelchair would have been a revelation for many viewers.

3) Bringing back the damn original cast

This third suggestion may sound like wishful thinking — except it clearly wasn’t, since the original Broadway cast did in fact reunite for last night’s performance as part of a preplanned finale appearance. One of the truly amazing things about Rent is that more than two decades after it opened in 1996, its entire cast of all-stars has remained basically ageless — most of them are still involved in music in some way, and their voices are still in top form. All of them remain deeply tied to the show that made them overnight stars, and are still deeply beloved by Rent’s legions of fans.

Plus, there’s something to be said for combining the deeply positive nostalgia of seeing the original cast reunited once more with the complicated, heavy nostalgia of the show itself. Because Rent just isn’t another musical, and that makes a huge difference.

Rent was a seminal generational voice that’s still important today — and that voice was muffled by Rent Live’s unnecessary production issues

The result of Fox’s weird decision-making and the underwhelming performance that aired on TV for much of Rent Live’s running time was that many viewers at home were deeply upset by the treatment Rent was getting.

“These people are producing this musical like it’s any other musical,” an outraged friend said to me at one point during the evening. “It’s like they’re producing Oklahoma instead of this thing that is very meaningful for a lot of people.”

My friend’s observation was completely accurate. Rent isn’t just any musical; the modern-era retelling of La Boheme, with its “bohemians” defined by battles against death, drug addiction, poverty and rent-gouging, and artistic obsolescence, is the voice of a generation decimated by AIDS, of a New York City living under the shadow of the virus in the ’80s and ’90s. And despite the many criticisms that have been leveled at it in the years since it debuted in 1996 — that its mores are outdated, that its “villain” isn’t so villainous, that it’s a gay story appropriated and refracted through a straight lens — the show’s power as a defining cultural narrative meant that in the middle of all the chaos surrounding Fox’s “live” production, tributes to the undeniable impact the show has had on American culture, and countless hearts, were frequent.

Some of those tributes also called attention to another odd side effect of the show’s status as a musical adapted for live TV: Rent, far more than other similar “live” musical television adaptations, suffered from several very odd wording changes — small things compared to the show’s overall spirit of risqué sexuality, which largely remained intact, but notable changes nonetheless. “[O]ne of the weirder side effects of ‘Rent’ airing on Fox is that ‘Rent’ could never be itself on Fox,” observed Variety (and former Vox culture) writer Caroline Framke. “No ‘dildo’ in ‘La Vie Boheme,’ but ‘faggots, lezzies, dykes’ made the cut?”

These trade-offs were strange — but more importantly, they underscored the blunt truth that Rent isn’t just a show you put on for the fun of it. Each of the other musicals that have aired on television as part of the recent “live” tradition — like The Sound of Music, The Wiz, and Jesus Christ Superstar — have been cultural juggernauts, sure, but they were, in essence, much different kinds of musical theater. None of those shows tackled real life in the way that Rent did, or represented the spirit of a marginalized community in its most historically vulnerable moment.

Before Fox’s production of Rent aired, writer Kristoffer Diaz, who adapted the Broadway show for television, posted a moving thread on Twitter about what Rent had meant to him as a young adult living in New York when it debuted. “As you watch, think about New York City,” he wrote. ”Think about feeling alone, even surrounded by millions of others feeling that same way. Think about watching your community in peril. Think about terror and uncertainty and fear and fear and sorrow and fear.”

Rent is unquestionably problematic, but it’s essentially true in spirit; its story is a testament to the queer community’s survival and hope during a moment of sheer despair brought about by a societal and political refusal to engage with the AIDS crisis. When it debuted, it offered a powerful view of the experience of a community that the rest of the world had essentially abandoned — as well as an equally powerful restorative promise that that community was no longer alone.

Rent Live could have been even more deeply powerful as a renewed protest against homophobia, transphobia, poverty, capitalist greed, and a society’s abandonment of its most marginalized, vulnerable populations in their greatest hour of need — and their greatest hours of fear. Its rage (“we’re dying in America at the end of the millennium”) and its love (“live in my house, I’ll be your shelter”) could have given us renewed energy and hope during a long, troubled winter.

Instead, due to production mishaps that could have been avoided and were then poorly handled, it barely got to make a sound.