Oh, I was happy to watch “Rent” tonight on Fox. The telecast has just ended. The music is still ringing in my ears. Here’s my own instant analysis…..
The staging was ingenious. And that finale–with the original Broadway cast members joining tonight’s cast–was terrifically moving. (I was very happy to spot Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Toby Parker, and the others.) The late Jonathan Larson’s words and music remain brilliant; he was a genius. The message of “Rent” still gets to me. And we need its message of love and inclusion now more than ever. Even though I’ve seen “Rent” so many times that I know it inside out–the best moments still move me. There was much to savor in the broadcast.
They captured a good bit of the proper energy in tonight’s broadcast. Not quite enough–and I’ll get to that in a moment. But a good bit. And they certainly ended strong.
But the fact is, Jonathan Larson–who wrote “Rent” (book, music, lyrics) and deservedly was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it–deserved more than what was delivered tonight. Something was missing.
The original stage production had more of an edge to it, more of a bite to it, than this telecast did. The original cast members communicated, at times, an anger at the injustice of people dying young. They “got” the message more; they understood it; it was real to them. And some of that flavor was, unfortunately, missing here. There were times when I found myself wanting to shout out to the actors: “Don’t hold back! You’re holding back, and you’ve got to go-for-broke now!” The original stars of “Rent,” Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, never held back; they put everything they had into it. They performed with total commitment. (And I saw them repeatedly; they never let me down.) I enjoyed most of tonight’s cast. The principals, for the most part, were effective. (One notable exception: tonight’s “Angel”–Valentina–was a disappointment; he did not do justice to the material, as a singer or actor, I could not stand his singing; I almost gave up on the broadcast, as he struggled and strained to sing one of the show’s best songs, “I’ll Cover You.” That was very unwise casting.)
I very much enjoyed Jordan Fisher (an endearing and surprisingly original “Mark”) and Brandon Victor Dixon (a strong, warm, loving “Collins”–lots of presence); for me, they were just great–the best in the bunch. Vanessa Hudgens did a decent job as “Maureen.” And the ensemble was strong.
Adapting Broadway shows for “live” TV is never easy. And this production was hampered by some extraordinary bad luck. One of the stars, Brennin Hunt, (“Roger”) broke his foot at the last minute, and they wound up broadcasting a tape of the dress rehearsal–instead of televising a “live” performance–for much of the night, Only the final portion–which hit home hardest-was actually airing “live.” And that may well account for some of the muted energy that bothered me–the fact that we were watching a videotaped dress rehearsal. Some actors may well have been “saving something” for the anticipated live broadcast, It felt like that to me, anyway.
It’s a pity they could not have had an understudy ready to step in for Hunt; the show would have surely been more energized, if performed 100% “live” the night of the telecast. And it could even have been a big break for a good understudy…. There are some very good actors around who’ve done stage productions of “Rent,” who would have made good understudies for the principals.
But I’m just speculating as to the reasons why the energy, at times, was too subdued. For all I know, this may have been the way the director and the actors wanted it; but the shows cries out, at key points, to be performed with all of the adrenaline that cast members can muster. And, for whatever reason, sometimes that was missing. In addition, the actors hadn’t gelled into a cohesive group, the way well-cast stage-actors will, given time. They seemed, at points, more like individual actors doing their own thing, than emotionally close members of a tribe, which is needed for an ideal production of “Rent.” Casting more actors who’d worked together on stage and had bonded more, or had more chemistry, might have helped.
I also noted they censored/revised/cut some of the original words here and there. A pity! I’d rather have seen Larson’s work without alteration. Sometimes a not-quite-right word was substituted for one that was absolutely perfect. And that bothered me a little bit. I know the care that any good writers takes to select just the right word. But fortunately, such alterations were few.
There was much to like in the telecast, despite the flaws I’ve mentioned. The book, the music, the lyrics, the heart–there’s a lot to love. And we need to hear that message: “No Day But Today!” Jordan Fisher and Brandon Victor Dixon gave performances to remember.
“Rent”–even an imperfectly executed “Rent”–remains iconic. And needs to be seen. I hope they’ll rebroadcast it.
–CHP DEFFAA, January 27th 2019