My Thoughts on Rent Live

“In these dangerous times, where it seems that the world is ripping apart at the seams, we all can learn how to survive from, we all can learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium”

-Jonathan Larson

On January 27, yet another live production was aired on Fox.  This time, the breakout 90’s musical Rent took the stage in an immersive concert experience. Now, I say “live production” begrudgingly, as an injury of one of the cast members forced Fox to air most of the show as a pre-recorded version.

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With Vanessa Hudgens, who performed in Rent before as Mimi, musical artists such as Tinashe and Mario, Broadway stars such as Brandon Victor Dixon and Jordan Fisher, and a worldwide search created for newcomer Brennin Hunt, the show was obviously picking up a lot of attention.

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Rent had a huge impact in the 90’s and remains an important work of art for the LGBTQ+ community today. Covering sensitive issues such as AIDS, poverty, and LGBTQ+ struggles, Rent creator Jonathan Larson addressed problems that were being looked over by larger society. The musical also brings a tragic backstory, as Larson died suddenly right before Rent became the hit it is today.

So, what did recreating this musical for the modern audience accomplish? The subjects covered in Rent are still present in our society today. According to hiv.gov, over 1 million people in the U.S still suffer from AIDS/HIV. However, one cannot separate a work of theatre from the society in which it was created.

Many of the people, places, and ideas of Rent are specific to 1990’s New York City. People who are familiar with the musical or who grew up through that time will be able to understand what the drug AZT is, or phrases like “you can take the girl out of Hicksville, but you can’t take the Hicksville out of the girl.” A mainstream audience…not so much.

To add some context to the production and to make it a true spectacle, unlike the original barebones production with metal tables and Christmas lights, an immersive experience that incorporated the audience into the show was created, as many live musicals before it.

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This added a lot of dialogue to the show, which was originally performed in the style of a rock opera. What really might throw off a true “Renthead,” however, is the lack of blunt language in its conversion from stage to television. Rent is a musical that has such difficult topics, it is an injustice to perform a “clean” version. However, I found that the live version stayed true to the original, still performing controversial songs such as "La Vie Boheme" and "Contact" in full, although many clean productions cut these songs.

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Overall, Rent Live! was fun, emotional experience, much like the original production. The audience had to look over details such as Brennin Hunt’s broken foot and inability to move from the table in the last act, but it only minorly subtracted from experience. The final touch of the original Broadway cast of Rent coming to perform the famous Seasons of Love in the final act created sweet nostalgia.

Although I have felt conflicted about live productions of musicals in the past (often studded with stars to make money, with Rent being no exception) I felt that Rent Live! affected me differently. Maybe it was the impact of the songs, or the tragic backstory of the creator, but although the show was created into a spectacle, the original value and emotions that come with it were still present.