When I was in high school, my friend Ciara took me to a local production of Rent, featuring a boy that she had a crush on in the ensemble. Nothing ever happened between them, but the show did spark a lifelong obsession with the musical for both of us. Over the next few weeks, we watched the movie on repeat and learned all the words to our favorite songs – my favorites were “Light My Candle” and, of course, “La Vie Boheme”! (Try singing those, or really any song from Rent, as quietly as possible so your parents don’t question your new favorite movie!)
As a 90s baby (who was 15 when Rent left Broadway), there was no chance that I would ever see the original cast on Broadway, so many of my opinions are based on either the movie or the few grainy clips I’ve seen of the original Broadway cast (and others) on YouTube. Because of this, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that a cable TV network would be adapting it for the live-but-on-your-TV stage!
I know that last sentence sounds sarcastic, but it really isn’t – I’ve been an unironic fan of these made-for-TV musicals since “The Sound of Music: Live” (which, wow, I did not realize came out 6 whole years ago!). Sure, they’re not always the pinnacle of TV or musical achievement, but they’re always fun and they almost always capture the excitement and energy of a live show, which, as someone who has the capacity but not the paycheck to go see shows on Broadway, I can fully appreciate. (Hey, I got hooked on Rent from a local theater production – I have no reason to be a snob about it.)
That being said, there’s nothing more about the actual production of “Rent: Live” that hasn’t already been said a million times before. I didn’t think that watching a dress rehearsal would perceptively effect the performance, but I realized I was dead wrong after even the first few songs. I couldn’t hear a word of “Today 4 U” over the crowd’s screaming. My aforementioned “Light My Candle” was filmed awkwardly and the performers were oh-so-slightly out of touch with the backing music. And what the hell was “La Vie Boheme”? “We’ll censor ‘dildos’ but leave in ‘mutual masturbation!” OK.
Even with these missteps, there were definitely some performers who still managed to stand out. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Jordan Fisher after his performance of “Those Magic Changes” in “Grease: Live”, so I was excited to see him as Mark, and while he seemed to be a very different personality, he still played the character in a lovable and “adorkable” way. I didn’t get a chance to see “Jesus Chris Superstar”, so Brandon Victor Dixon blew me away for the first time as very well cast Collins – seeing him singing next to Jesse L. Martin felt like watching a father and son belt it out together. Kiersey Clemons was a powerful Joanne, if not younger than I was expecting (though I guess that is my own bias seeping in). “Take Me or Leave Me” was an unexpected highlight!
And speaking of “Take Me or Leave Me” – Vanessa Hudgens! I was not impressed by the clips I saw of her playing Mimi at the Hollywood Bowl, so imagine my surprise when I couldn’t take my eyes off of her doing “Over the Moon”. I don’t know when she (really) learned how to sing, but wow, I completely forgot about Idina Menzel’s Maureen for a bit there. I’ll admit that I saw a clip of “Take Me or Leave Me” before anything else (shoutout to Hulu, which put minute-long clips of each song up before the musical itself) and felt terrible for Hudgens, who was doing her best, but it was close to impossible to get Menzel’s vocals out of mind. However, taking that clip in the context of the show, where I had already fallen in love with Hudgens’s Maureen, I have much more appreciation for her “everybody stares at me” attitude, which was much more fitting for Hudgens as Maureen than she ever could have been for Mimi.
The big performances that left me wanting more were Tinashe as Mimi and Valentina as Angel. For Tinashe, I would not put that on her performance, but just on my dislike as Mimi as a character (which I’m sure colored my opinion of Hudgens’s previous performance as well). As much as I like “Light My Candle”, her and Roger always felt very icky to me, in every iteration, and “Out Tonight” has always grated on me, though I will admit that Tinashe’s was probably the least annoying version that I’ve heard (sorry, Rosario Dawson). And as much as I wanted to like Valentina, as she had all of the sass and warmth that a good Angel should have, her lack of singing ability stood out, especially in a cast of strong singers (though, again, I’m not sure if that just boils down to the “dress rehearsal” aspect). I was so disappointed by “Today 4 U” and “I’ll Cover You” simply because it didn’t feel like Valentina had the pipes to really deliver them.
Finally, as much as I enjoy watching Rent, especially live, it definitely felt like it dragged on at points. I really thought that more than 2 hours was much too long for this event on TV, especially when the performances were often “dress rehearsal” level. The whole thing left me simultaneously wanting more (that is, the actual, full performance) and not wanting any more (that is, when is this thing going to end…).
Did “Rent: Live” affect my love and obsession for Rent? Absolutely not – I still enjoyed almost every minute of it, as I will happily gobble up any “Rent” that I can get my hands on. Sure, I will forever be haunted by the definitely-better version that could have happened had Brennin Hunt not broken his foot, but hey, I’ll take it (and not leave it)!