Rent aired live-ish on Fox last night, although portions of it were taped from the rehearsal performance the night before, after Brennin Hunt — who plays Roger — broke his ankle and couldn’t pull off the live performance. I’m not sure how much it would have made a difference. The live performance was probably doomed to be a pale and off-key imitation of the original from the beginning.
Rent is one of the greatest musicals of all time. It’s also the only one I’ve ever seen on Broadway, because I do not live in New York and I am not a wealthy man. But the soundtrack is tattooed on my brain, and I know every note, deep exhale, and Mimi screech. Not that the live version should be a carbon copy of the original, mind you, but the 2019 version is also missing an incredibly important ingredient to the original run’s success: Context.
Rent was the Hamilton of the late 1990s, and like Hamilton, it still would’ve been a near-perfect play during any other time, but history made it resonate with the force of the sun. Hamilton felt like an extension of the resistance movement, a thumb in the eye of Donald Trump (and Mike Pence). Likewise, Rent debuted during a time when we were still losing those we love to AIDs, during a time in which men were regularly being beaten and killed for being gay, and during a time in which it felt that forces were conspiring harder than ever against the LGBT community (last gasps, and all that). The death of Jonathan Larson on the morning of Rent’s first preview performance Off-Broadway made Rent feel all the more profound and bittersweet, imbuing the triumphant hope of Rent with a sense of tragedy.
You could feel that context in the original cast — they looked and sounded like they were carrying the baggage of history with them. This new cast? They don’t look like they’re struggling. There is no hollowness to their eyes. No cracks in their voices. They’re too polished. They look like an older version of the High School Musical cast. These poor bastards just didn’t have a chance (it didn’t help, either, that the play’s anti-capitalist sentiments didn’t translate well in between Burger King commercials).
And look: Vanessa Hudgens was fine, but, she’s no Idina Menzel because no one is Idina Menzel. It’s an impossible act to follow, and Hudgens looks like she’s having way too much fun to be broke during the AIDs epidemic. She’s got the wattage, but not the presence.
I’ll say this for “Take Me Or Leave Me,” at least: It was much better than Hudgen’s attempt at “Over the Moon,” which should probably be deleted from YouTube immediately.
Tinashe was an OK Mimi, but the thing about Mimi is, if her voice doesn’t make your skin crawl a little bit with the high notes during “Out Tonight,” it’s not really Mimi. Tinashe doesn’t really even try, and that’s probably to the credit of her performance, but it still lacks.
Roger’s got arguably one of the toughest jobs in the play — he sets the tone for the rest of the performance with “One Song, Glory,” which is basically the “One Shot” of Rent. Bless him, but Brennin Hunt is a poor, poor imitation of Adam Pascal, the straight white male character who, in the wrong hands, could have ended up feeling like a poor caricature or … this.
I feel like I just watched an outtake from a rejected episode of Glee. Woof.
Meanwhile, Kiersey Clemons (as Joanne) and Valentina (as Angel) were fine, but certainly not memorable (and I really like Clemons from her other work).
I will give the live rendition credit on a couple of counts, however. Jordan Fisher, who played Mark, was fantastic. He’s not quite as good as Anthony Rapp, but if he’d performed Rent on stage every night for six months, he probably could be. What energy the show did have came largely from Fisher.
Likewise, Keala Settle gave the “Seasons” reprise some gravitas and a voice worthy of Rent, but even her contribution seemed to be missing the sort of joyful angst of the original play.
Ultimately, for me at least, it all came down to the “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” which is the centerpiece of Rent, and the true test of a Rent is whether the line, “When your heart has expired” makes tears spring from your eyeballs and splash on the wall across the room. No one — and I mean, no one — will ever be able to duplicate Jesse L. Martin on the original recording, not even Jesse L. Martin (in Rent the movie), but Brandon Victor Dixon is as good a replacement as you could ask.
It’s a little showy, but you still get the sense that he feels the loss of Angel and ultimately, that’s the lynchpin upon which Rent is based, so the live version wasn’t a total failure. Also, it brought back the original cast which, at the very least, was lovely to see, even if it mostly served to remind (old-school) viewers of what they were missing.