Rent: Live didn’t just throw viewers back to the ‘90s. It took us all the way back to the previous night’s dress rehearsal, most of which aired on Fox Sunday night in place of a planned live broadcast. #RentNotLive started trending on Twitter after a notice appeared that portions would be pre-recorded.
The actor playing Roger, Brennin Hunt, broke his foot near the end of Saturday’s rehearsal, so producers decided to show us a recording of that performance. (The injury reportedly happened off-stage.) The company would only appear live for the last few minutes, including a finale with members of Rent’s original Broadway cast. That reprise of “Seasons of Love” featuring Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Taye Diggs among others was the night’s clear high point.
But gone was the electricity of previous live broadcasts, like last year’s Jesus Christ Superstar, or even 2016’s Grease: Live, both from the same producers as last night. The thrill of watching live musicals on TV is half waiting for something to go wrong — a tone set by the trainwreck that was The Sound of Music: Live in 2013 — and half waiting to be blown away, as we all were by The Wiz two years later.
That Rent’s pre-recorded broadcast felt like a new low — it was the least watched and lowest rated of the trend to date — proved the power of a live performance. (And the utility of another night to iron out technical issues; when the show finally went live, sound, lighting, and picture quality snapped into much higher quality.) It was a shame for the actors, too, who hadn’t expected their dress rehearsal to air, were likely saving their full energy for the real thing, and weren’t able to feed off the energy of performing live on TV.
But they were performing live — we just weren’t watching. Videos from inside the actual performance taking place on the L.A. stage starting trickling onto Twitter.
Hunt and the company, which included Drag Race All Star Valentina as Angel, Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen, and Tinashe as Mimi were actually performing in front of the L.A. audience. Michael Greif, who directed the original production, used his signature scaffolding for the set, with actors scurrying up and down and all around — tough staging to rework with Roger in a wheelchair. The technical aspects may have been too much of a bend over backward, but many agreed airing that performance would have been the real spirit of “the show must go on” — instead of turning “no day but today” into “about last night.”
Though the stakes of the AIDS crisis weren’t consistently clear in performance, Fox added voice-over statistics indicating the horrors of the epidemic. In a production aimed more toward drawing in young fans than appeasing those of the original, it served as useful and essential context. Hopefully at least a few new Rent fans woke up today with Jonathan Larson’s score wrapped around their hearts. Maybe they’ll help petition Fox to release the actual footage of Rent: Live.