There are plenty of reasons not to stage a live, nationally televised performance of Rent in 2019. Though inspired by the timeless Puccini opera La Bohème, the 25-year-old story hasn’t exactly aged well—it’s a relic of an era when HIV was presumed to be a death sentence; when selling out was a sin (rather than an impossibility) for young artists; when pop culture rarely made space for LGBT identities; and when a playwright could get away with making two straight, white men the heroes of a show about gentrification and AIDS. Rent’s first screen adaptation, from 2005, flopped, despite reuniting most of the original Broadway cast. Meanwhile, in a reality that would have disturbed Rent‘s DIY-or-die characters, broadcast networks’ recent enthusiasm for live musicals has been more effective at getting viewers to watch TV in real time than at producing good art. To paraphrase the show: This is network television. Bohemia is dead.
But there was a more pressing reason why Fox should have thought twice before airing Rent: Live on Sunday: Toward the end of Saturday’s dress rehearsal, Brennin Hunt, the actor who played the central role of rocker and recovering addict Roger Davis, broke his right foot. There was no understudy. So, instead of postponing the event it had been hyping for months, the network showed mostly dress rehearsal footage—a decision the cast explained in a confusing video that preceded the first commercial break. (At least, I think it was the first break. Full disclosure: I missed the opening 10 minutes of the show due to a brief, mysterious Fox outage that was reported throughout the New York City area.)
Like most musicals, Rent has a simple plot: It’s Christmas in the early 1990s. Roger and his introverted filmmaker roommate Mark (Disney Channel alum Jordan Fisher) are desperate for rent money after a run-in with their sellout pal-turned-landlord Benjamin Coffin III (actor and R&B artist Mario), who’s cut their electricity. The racially and sexually diverse bohemian population of their East Village neighborhood rises up in an extremely artsy protest against such greed. And over the year that follows, the guys and their friends have life-shaking encounters with love, sickness and loss.
That story doesn’t leave much room for confusion, yet if I hadn’t known it going in, the jittery cuts, dizzying camera angles and abbreviated spoken dialogue that plagued Rent: Not-So-Live might’ve lost me. Hyperactive editing rarely allowed for a moment’s pause for reaction shots or to let songs sink in. A swooping Steadicam killed the emotional impact of the show’s most melancholy number, “Will I?” Though the relatively sparse stage did improve upon the 2005 film’s bizarre approximation of Alphabet City, its sprawl made for some whiplash-inducing production numbers. Well-intentioned educational asides about the AIDS crisis and about Rent’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who died suddenly on the eve of its Off-Broadway premiere in 1996, detracted from what was happening between the characters.
The cast wasn’t entirely right, either. Kiersey Clemons has won raves for playing characters who are young and still figuring things out in movies like Dope and Hearts Beat Loud. But the 25-year-old actor didn’t have the gravitas of older performers who have played lesbian lawyer Joanne. RuPaul’s Drag Race star Valentina gave her all to the role of Angel—an exuberant drag queen who has Rent’s most wrenching arc—but didn’t have the voice to do justice to tough songs like “Today 4 U” and “I’ll Cover You.” Perhaps because the cast was saving its strength for a live show that barely happened, the only vocal performance that equaled that of the Broadway cast came from Brandon Victor Dixon, the Tony nominee who played radical philosopher Tom Collins. (There’s no matching Idina Menzel, who originated the role of flamboyant performance artist Maureen, but Vanessa Hudgens deserves lots of credit for nailing the character’s big “Over the Moon” solo.)
The transition felt more jarring than it should have when Sunday’s airing finally went live for the final few numbers, as though the actors had abruptly shifted out of autopilot. The return of the Broadway cast for a final “Seasons of Love” reprise added another jolt of energy, even as it heightened the sense that Rent had aged out of relevance and into the realm of nostalgia. And though Hunt did remarkably well for a guy with a freshly broken bone, it wasn’t right that he had to sit on a table with a giant cast on his foot for the duration of his climactic scene. In fact, it was unfair to the whole cast that Fox aired this slapdash substitute for a show about artistic integrity. We’ll never know whether a genuinely live version would have come closer to preserving the urgency of Larson’s beloved musical, but it certainly would’ve had a better excuse for showing so many seams.