By Kyle Jensen
January 27th, 8:00 pm eastern standard time: FOX aired their most recent foray into the live musical tv genre (or fad), RENT: Live. Before we go another step, I want to alleviate any doubts and say that I actually enjoyed the production very much. In general, it stayed true to the spirit of Jonathan Larson's vision and made it accessible to a new generation of people who haven’t grown up with the plague that was HIV/AIDS and separated from the avant garde, bohemian art culture in the early 90’s. The cast, in general, knew and understood the gravitas of the roles with which they were entrusted, and gave them soul. So, if you read no further and don't watch my accompanying video (both of which you should do), my recommendation is to watch it and to rekindle your love for one of the greatest pieces of theatre (yes, “re”) ever created. But, we’re going to dig a little deeper into this particular production and discuss the value of RENT in general.
Let's start with the promo. I didn't see very many because I don't watch regular TV. Netflix, HULU, Prime TV, and HBO Go are all I need to be happy. But as I tuned in, I was unfortunately forced to watch the last bit of Bob's Burgers (which was almost pedantic and pedestrian enough to make me turn the TV off and risk missing the start of the show) and I saw a brief commercial for the upcoming performance. This promo used numbers to give weight to show. You know, 16 cameras, 20 cast members, that sort of thing. Only one really stuck in my mind: “1 chance to get it right” #cringe. So, you know, just like actual theatre. I get that for the majority of the population the idea of doing something live and not getting a do-over is a foreign concept to be lauded. They live in a world of “take 22,” pre-recorded tracks, and auto tune, but there is an entire community of people who don't get to have sound mixing and multiple takes; they only have one chance to get it right. These artists get it right eight shows a week. Let's begin this review by recognizing the people that Jonathan Larson wrote about: the artists of alphabet city and those treading the boards of the theatre district. You all are artistic heros.
The production opens with a quote from Jonathan. “In these trying times where the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can learn from those who stare death in the face every day by reaching out to each other and bonding as a community, rather than hiding from the terrors of life.” And yes, immediately started crying. It strikes me as uniquely powerful that these words intended to describe those living with AIDS in the early 90’s could be ascribed to migrants and refugees all over our planet in 2019. Jonathan's message of love is still needed today. Then Rodger tunes his guitar. Is there a more iconic start? Nothing flashy, just an artist honing his craft. Every time I hear that guitar tune, it's like I'm saying hello to an old friend and getting ready to step out on a new adventure. I found the lyric changes at the beginning here to be poignant and perfect: “December 24th 9pm, 1991,” as opposed to “December 24th 9pm, eastern standard time.” Already this production is setting the scene for a new audience. It's not 2019 with 2019 problems. It's 1991 and the world was different then. Unfortunately, this is one of the only lyric changes I did appreciate. The rest of this first scene is egregiously rushed, cut up and hacked. Most of the “recitative” of this rock opera gets the same treatment. *Director's Note: recitative is a style of “speak singing” mainly used in opera and oratorio compositions. It is designed to move the plot forward by explaining action in quick rhythms on repetitive notes. The response to recitative is aria. The aria is the more melodic moment musically and is used to express emotion and build character.* The creative team for Rent: Live tried to cram all the plot movement into half the space. Presumably because they had a limited time slot and the creators choose to spend their time on the “arias.” But for me, this just makes me ask: if you're not going to do it right, why do it at all? For #rentheads like me, this caused a disjointed and choppy feeling throughout. We know the lyrics by heart and we're just skipping and jumping around everywhere! For people new to RENT, it had to feel like the plot (of which there is very little to begin with) had no movement or direction. In fact, even I felt like this production lacked a sense of continuity and forward motion because of this.
The other glaring lyric changes happened in La Vie Boheme. The fact that the cast can't say “dildo,” while “mucho masterbation” is fine leaves me wondering about our archaic rating standards, and I can't be the only one who had my viewing party menu thwarted by cutting the waiter from La Vie Boheme. I need my pasta with meatless balls, please! In contrast (and much to my surprise) the moment in the middle of the song where normally we have “In honor of the death of bohemia, Mimi Marquez, clad only in bubble wrap will perform her famous lawn chair handcuff dance to the sounds of iced tea being stirred” instead had an introduction as our cast as the “cabinet” of Bohemia. I felt that this was a clever way to soften the language and still keep the revolutionary spirit of the show in tact. Now, we could start a whole separate conversation here about artistic censorship. We could go back to my previous statement that if you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it. Those of you ascribing to this mentality would have a legitimate argument, one that I normally agree with wholeheartedly. In this instance, however, I am willing to accept some slight changes for the hope that this production birthed a new generation of #rentheads. I myself am torn on this argument and this subject. I would welcome your thoughts in the comments.
Other issues occurred in the balance of the audio. The pit drowned out the vocals through most of the evening and when it wasn't the pit, it was the gaggle of screaming people in the audience acting like they were at a rock concert. Linda, put your hand down, stop screaming and enjoy the show. It became very clear that this was a decision made by the directors. This decision annoyed me in Jesus Christ Superstar: Live and it annoys me here. With one caveat: in “Superstar,” Judas is actually out of character, out of context and hosting a rock show. It worked there but nowhere else. Ever. If the aim is to expose new people to theatre, then include theater etiquette (yes, “er”). The last thing I want is to be sitting down at the Shubert to see Bernadette Peters in Hello! Dolly and the front row is screaming and reaching out to her the entire show. If the aim isn’t to expose new people to theatre, then you’re doing this for the wrong reasons. Additionally, the constantly moving cameras would cause motion sickness in even the most stalwart of stomachs. The cameras followed cast members around the stage at a breakneck pace adding to the sense of choppiness.
Most of the other artistic decisions were absolutely inspired. Physically, the set was stunning. A perfect throw-back to the scaffolding of the original staging but with added points of interest. Using actual subway signs that can be found in the East Village, and storefronts that were in the neighborhood at the time really helped set the scene of the nitty, gritty, dirty fabulousness that is New York City then and now. The creators also gave us so many Easter Eggs for the die hard #rentheads watching. *Shoutout to Angel saying no to Mark’s OG sweater in “Christmas Bells”* The lighting, while at times distracting, mostly provided energy and intensity to the show. Musically, the re-voicing of many ensemble numbers added a lot of musical interest and made me sit up and pay attention. These moments were things I hadn’t heard before in the middle of a score that I know backwards and forwards. Specifically, “Will I” was stunning. The addition of fuller chords and expanding the simple “round” style of the song was beautiful. Adding the visual impact of red AIDS candles made this moment one of my favorites of the night.
In many ways, the creators took the Life Support meetings and made a new character. There was life and vitality in these moments. The varied and ages, races and genders made these meetings look like a slice of humanity. And while each member of meeting introduced themselves once, the overall feeling was of one collective unit of love and support. To use one of my favorite adages from the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a queer spirituality denomination, they showed unity without uniformity and diversity without division. Going a step further and making the leader of Life Support a supporting character was also genius. This should be something done in productions going forward. Having the leader officiate Angel’s funeral was powerful and moving (and not just because the leader was Keala Settle).
While Mark has always been the observer, in this production he was talking to the audience through his camera. Mark explaining the AIDS crisis in New York City right before the first “Life Support” was a highlight moment for me (particularly powerful was Anthony Rapps voice doing the narration.) Throughout the production, Mark was able to keep us up do date and where the characters were and what they were doing. This also added to the feeling that Mark is somehow isolated from the action. He observers but rarely actually interacts. This gave much more power to “Halloween” when Roger says vehemently “Mark hides in his work.”
Now let's talk about “Seasons of Love.” Brilliant. Did I cry the moment I heard those famous chords? Absolutely. Will I cry every time I hear those famous chords? Absolutely. Every future production should do something similar. Having Mark open the act telling us about his friends living with (not dying from) AIDS and his fear of losing them this year includes Seasons of Love in the plot of the show for the first time. Since every #renthead is used to hearing this classic Broadway anthem as an ensemble number, having it start as a solo added a level of sweetness and sincerity. And Jordan’s acting even added a sense of urgency to the lyrics. “525,600 moments so dear...how do you measure a year” Then, having the second verse take place at Life Support reminded us all to take it one daylight and one sunset at a time. Passing the solo lines between members added to that sense of commonality I referred to previously. Beautiful and touching. All that being said, I still need my classic “RENT line” when all the cast members stand together across the stage to sing. I still need that visual sense of unity from this community on stage. To me, the solution is simple. After Life Support sings “how do you measure a year in this life,” simply add measures of instrumental music *Director's Note: This is known as a vamp* to allow the company to place themselves at the front of the stage, cue the spotlights, and start from the top in the classic ensemble style. Because, c'mon, everyone wants more “Seasons of Love!” There were many other brilliant moments, but since they have direct relation to some individual performances, I will touch on those throughout the rest of this review.
Some performers in the cast were great and others were painful. In general those with a theatre background had the stamina to make it through the show. Those without that experience were clearly vocally and physically exhausted. Jordan Fisher as Mark was the stand out star to me. You could hear his reverence for the role and the show in every note he sang, and boy does he give great face! You felt every emotion because you could see it printed on his face. This is what stage acting looks like! He took the character and added a new level. There was so much heart in his interpretation, and his vocals were on point. *Ovation Moment: the solo in “Seasons of Love.” Storm Out Moment: none.*
Brennin Hunt as Roger was at times wonderful and at others not so great. His vocals on “One Song Glory” were spot on and I thought we had a winner! But the entire rest of his performance was hollow. He is a rock artist and clearly does not know how to convey character (or emotions). I didn't believe for one moment he was in love with Mimi. Roger needs to have grittiness and rock style to his voice, but he also needs to have the chops to act. So I was feeling slightly ambivalent verging on annoyance with his crowd pandering, and then “What You Own” happened. Pitchy pitchy pitchy. Those harmonies were just bad. Jordan tried to compensate multiple times to tune the intervals and ended up just throwing in the towel and starting the last few moments of harmony on the melody so Brennin could find the note and then dropping to his harmony. Not good. *Ovation Moment: “One Song Glory.” Walk Out Moment: “What You Own.”*
On to Mimi. Was there a Mimi? I kept forgetting she was there until her attempt at straight tone made her go flat. *Director’s Note: Straight tone refers to when an artist hits a note without vibrato (a rapid, slight variation in pitch) which is en vogue right now by notoriously difficult to tune* Then I remembered: Yup! There she is! Vocally taxed, uninspired, and flat (her tone and her character). “Out Tonight” had no energy and no danger. Nor did it have good vocals. She couldn't even breathe by the end! Like, is she a big name I just don't know? Why was she cast? Now, in fairness, I’m comparing her directly to Renée Elise Goldsberry who, in my decidedly not humble opinion, is the best Mimi to ever have the role. (Please go watch the 2008 RENT: Live on Broadway if you haven’t already.) Is that fair? Probably not. Is it reality? Yeah, kinda. *Ovation Moment: none. Walk Out Moment: “Out Tonight.”*
Ok, now Valentina. Poor, poor Valentina. She gets kicked off All Stars and puts on this performance all in one weekend. She's clearly still living in that famous fantasy of hers. And it's not cute, America. Everything was so forced! Every gesture felt like the director said: “put your hand here, now move your hips like this.” Robotic is too kind a term. But vocally... it wasn't terrible. Sometimes she was even quite good. While “Today 4U” was nothing short of an atrocity with worrisome choreography and a voice so tired she sounded like she was a 5 pack a day smoker, she was saved by “Contact.” I’m not sure if her notes were pre recorded and piped in, but they were there. Are movement was ethereal. It was the only time I felt any real connection between her and Tom. That back-bend onto the bed holding his hand was stunning. *Ovation Moment: “Contact.” Walk Out Moment: “You Ok Honey.”*
Speaking of Tom Collins. Yes. Daddy. Or, #zaddy! Brandon Victor Dixon was a powerhouse! Stunning vocals like butter, emotion dripping from every note and every gesture. In fact, I felt like he was madly in love with Angel but Angel couldn't give two shits about him! “I'll Cover You Reprise” is easily the best I've ever seen it. He is a tried, tested, seasoned, and battle earned star of the Broadway stage. The only thing missing from the “Reprise” scene was that classic RENT Line at the front of the stage again, except leaving a empty space for Angel. This is one of the best director decision ever made in its beauty, simplicity, and emotional reward. I missed it. Ovation Moment: *“I'll Cover You Reprise.” Walk Out Moment: none.*
On to Keirsey Clemons as Joann. Again, is this a big name I don't know about? Why was she cast? At least her vocals were good, but she just cannot act. Much like Valentina it was robotic and forced. I've read many reviews that said she slayed “Take Me or Leave Me.” And yes, it was a better moment, but Vanessa Hudgens carried her through that number character wise. To really make my point, I scoured the internet for a good action pic of Keirsey in the show and then one to the left is the best one I could find. Even in the picture she is being upstaged by Vanessa. I hate to tell y'all, but in the musical theatre world you have to be able to sing and act. *Ovation Moment: “Take Me or Leave Me.” Walk Out Moment: “We're Ok.”*
Finally, Vanessa. I have a predisposition to hate her because I hate all things High School Musical. Additionally, I find Maureen to be the most annoying character in the show (except when played by Eden Espinosa. Again, If you haven’t seen the 2008 RENT: Live on Broadway, do so immediately). So I went in already hating her. Y'all, she was brilliant. “Over the Moon” was exactly what performance street art is like! It was stupid, campy, spontaneous, raw, and BEAUTIFUL. Vanessa gave me new insight into this character as more than just a drama queen seeking attention. It was stunning. The only drawback was that once you start giving me over-the-top eleganza, you have to commit! Specifically, in “Finale B” I needed more. When Mimi came back to life, Vanessa started off well with her gasp of shock, but when Mimi says she was “headed toward this warm bright light” and Maureen responds “Oh my God,” I needed that to punch through and make me laugh. In other scenes, she dropped the dramatic demeanor altogether for something more subdued. Just give it to me! *Ovation Moment: “Over the Moon.” Walk Out Moment: none*
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the ensemble. They were a cohesive force of nature giving me powerful vocals and on point choreography. Someone please make RENT a dance show! The quick and precise “street” dance style added to the 90’s grunge and also added a ton of visual interest. But while they shined as a unit, they failed individually. As previously stated, I loved the idea of the age spans in “Life Support,” but if you're gonna give people an iconic solo be sure they can hit the iconic notes.
Saving the best for last. The finale (which ended up being the only bit done live) was perfection. I got really nervous when it appeared they were going to show the iconic video montage. I was rewarded however, by them telling us Jonathan's story instead. I thought I was done shedding tears, but I wasn't. Having the entire supporting cast rush the stage was also very powerful (though with more vomit inducing camera work). Due to Valentina’s egregious acting, the Angel reveal at the end had no effect. Still, I found myself crying and singing along “no day but today!” For the curtain call, they incorporated the original cast in their iconic line. It was wonderful to see them. You could see the true joy on all their faces for this show that changed them. That changed all of us.
Before I end this scene, I want to take it back to the title: In Defense of RENT. There has been a lot of discussion leading up to RENT: Live about the nature of this show. I read one article by very young author (picture evidence would suggest 21 or 22) who said RENT is a plagiarized plot, and illegitimate because its author is straight. So let's unpack that blather for a moment. It's not plagiarized it's based on La Bohème by Puccini. It has never claimed otherwise. It's an homage, a continuance of that story for the 1990’s. Perhaps in a few decades someone else will come along and continue the story again from where Jonathan left off. As for him being straight. I'm done. Being queer in 1990 was dangerous, being an ally was dangerous, and it was people like Jonathan that made the world a little safer for us. Did you know that he also wrote an anthem for an AIDS fundraiser called “Love Heals?” In a time when most straight people wouldn't even touch someone queer for risk of getting AIDS, he was raising money for awareness, for a cure, and for validation of what was happening on the streets where he lived. Without allies, queer people would be nowhere. Remember it. Further, he was writing his story! The characters in RENT are based on people in his life. So because he was straight and had queer friends he can't write about it because he's straight? No kween. In RENT, for maybe the first time, queer people were not an accessory used for fashion advice or comedic relief. They were central and powerful. Remember it.
Then I had a conversation on a gay "dating" app (that will go nameless) about RENT: Live and he told me that RENT is nothing but empty calories lacking nutrients and substance. While the #renthead in me was instantly enraged, the theatre critic in me decided to review my favorite show with fresh eyes (as opposed to the eyes of a teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality in the late 90's). The common argument against RENT is it's book. *Director’s Note: the book of a musical is essentially it's script. When a reviewer talks about the book they're referring to the plot and it's direction (or lack thereof)* In this case, people take particular grievance in the lack of direction of tRENT’s plot. And, frankly, it's a valid argument. But, okay, Carol, when they make A Chorus Line: Live I promise to let it go for you. In the case of both RENT and A Chorus Line, the center of the show is not one defining story, but a multitude of stories and how they interact together. In the specific case of RENT, it's about the community that these friends created. Most importantly however, RENT raised the bar. Every generation of theatre creators have left their mark, pushing the art form forward and raising the bar. Starting with Show Boat, the bar raised through Oklahoma, South Pacific, West Side Story, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Todd, and then RENT passed the mantle to Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Hamilton. In fact, I could do an entire post on the shows that changed the art form! Now, I don't think anyone reading this would argue that South Pacific is an "edgy" piece of theatre. In fact, Rodgers and Hammerstein are generally considered today to be the escapist frivolity of a bygone era. Empty calories, if you will. But in its day, their shows changed everything. The themes and messages they presented were revolutionary then, even if they aren't now. My very wise grandfather said after seeing RENT, that South Pacific did for him and his generation what RENT did for me and mine. Wow.
So, in conclusion, an homage honoring great work is not plagiarism, straight people are allowed to tell their stories even if they include queer people, allies were the way forward for the queer community then (and, frankly, they are now), and if RENT is empty calories today, it's only because we've spent over 20 years absorbing its nutrients into the blood of our culture.
How will you measure your year? #thanksjonathan #renthead #broadwaydoesitbest
Kyle Jensen is a local entertainer and performer who recently moved to New Jersey from Colorado. An avid Broadway connoisseur and Disney fan, he formerly worked at the local piano bar, Pianist Envy, and helped support the staff with fundraisers on zoom when the quarantine began.