The live theater war that NBC and Fox have been waging since 2013, when Carrie Underwood starred in NBC’s "The Sound of Music," saw its latest salvo Sunday with Fox's "Rent: Live," a sweet and energetic sound-staging of Jonathan Larson's 1996 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning pop opera.
For television to become an “event” requires timeliness. And theater, which is not exactly television even when it's on television, is a thing that lives in the moment: “No day but today,” runs one of Larson’s most indelible choruses. (That theme and others repeat throughout the work, turning it into a giant ear worm.) Ironically, the Sunday night broadcast, scheduled to run live (on the East Coast, that is), opened with a notice that we were watching a previously recorded performance: Brennin Hunt, who played moody rock dude Roger, broke his foot during a run-through of the show, and most of what aired Sunday was a recorded dress rehearsal. I suppose that made it a little less of an event, though everything that happened happened live at some point. No day but today, and yesterday.
As practically everyone who knows anything about “Rent” must know, it’s an updating of “La Bohème,” Giacomo Puccini's 1896 Italian opera of 1840s French bohemian life — though, theatrically speaking, it is as much the child of "Hair" (which is being mounted this spring by NBC), another musical of downtown New York counterculture in which rootless young people form new families, shock the bourgeoisie and choose life. The shadow, though, that hangs over the drama is not Vietnam, but AIDS, gentrification and the prospect of selling out one’s art for a paycheck.
Indeed, “Rent” is already a period piece, as anyone who has so much as ridden a cab through lower Manhattan in this century will recognize. The grimy backdrop against which it’s set — Fox’s “Rent” is an encyclopedia of late 20th century East Village detritus, scattered across interlinked stages and scaffolding, on a set that honored and expanded upon that of the stage production — has long since been painted over with high-end boutiques, pricey restaurants and fashionable hotels. Artists have not starved there in quite some time.
The text too belongs to another day; AIDS is something people live with; drag queens have TV shows (Valentina, who plays Angel, was a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”); gay people raise families; and a boy losing his girl to another girl is a plot device that barely raises an eyebrow now. A few interpolated speeches give younger — or forgetful — viewers some historical context.
And yet “Rent” also exists out of time, as an ode to and work of self-celebration and self-dramatization and invented community, which is in a sense the essence of youth and of theater. (It’s what makes the Tony Awards the only awards show worth watching.) On that base level it has something for anyone living through, looking forward to or remembering such a time in their lives. For many who have been through the musical multiple times, it’s less a play than holy text — an enacted ritual.
(My own previous experience of the piece amounts to “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway,” which effectively captures the 2008 “final performance” of the show’s 12-year Broadway run; Chris Columbus’ prosaic 2006 film version, which has the historical interest of using most of the original cast; and Hillsboro High School’s 2013 spring production, which you can find on YouTube and which I totally recommend.)
One notes with interest, though not necessarily judgment, that where the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions were the work of theater people who had lived some version of the New York drama “Rent” commemorates, Sunday’s cast members were largely products of television and the music industry. (Mostly both.) Brandon Victor Dixon as the philosophy professor Tom Collins, the show’s cool older character, was the Tony-nominated ringer (“The Color Purple,” “Shuffle Along,” “Motown: The Musical,” “Hamilton”), and it showed. (He also played Judas in NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” last year, for which he was nominated for an Emmy.)
Though it’s dramatically sketchy and emotionally a little manipulative — that’s opera, some might say — you’d need a pretty hard heart for none of “Rent” to work on you. The action takes place over the course of a year, from Christmas 1991 to Christmas 1992 (the “525,600” minutes of the “Seasons of Love,” the show’s best-known song). Mark (Jordan Fisher) and Roger are roommates on the Lower East Side; Mark, who narrates, wants to make movies, Roger, a former junkie, who is HIV-positive, is a “rocker,” I’d guess you’d call him, trying to write one more good song. Mimi (Tinashe), who does heroin and dances in a nightclub, lives downstairs and falls in love with Roger, as he with her.
Benny (Mario), formerly one of their own, now owns their building and wants his rent. He’s also going to build a “cyberstudio” in an empty lot where homeless people live. Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens), Mark’s old girlfriend, is a performance artist in a relationship with Joanne (Kiersey Clemons), a lawyer. Collins is a the philosophy professor is falling in love with Angel, a drag queen from the streets; both have AIDS. Everybody hangs out. There are breakups and makeups, bad drugs and good drugs, and several flavors of rock and pop. You can feel it, even when you can’t follow it, and Fox’s busy production wasn’t always easy to follow.
All the performers delivered, some more memorably than others — Fisher made the most of what might be the show’s most nebulous role — but none were anything near a disaster. (As in the film, some of the sung parts that linked “songs” — the recitative, in opera terms — were converted to dialogue.)
The production offered some interesting new ideas as to staging, but the pace felt rushed at times, and muddled at others; numbers that should have been surefire did not always connect. At times the musicians obscured the singers; other times they sounded strangely far off. The camerawork too, switching from long to wide-angle lenses or careening about the stage(s), often broke the reality of the action instead of supporting it.
The audience, which was never far off camera, was sometimes too much of a good thing, treating the drama as a pop concert, seemingly more excited by proximity to stars than the substance of what they had to sing. They were not exactly discouraged in that. Some of this surely would have been fixed after the dress rehearsal we wound up watching for most of the night. And you do make allowances.
And then there were commercials; plays typically come with one intermission, maybe two, often none. That “Rent” comprises a series of showstopping numbers, many of which might have rung down the curtain on an act, made the breaks seem less jarring than they might have, but there were a lot of them, denting the integrity of a work that is against being sold things.
When the show joined real time toward the end, with Hunt onstage, it was with a foot in a bracing boot and a leg propped on a chair, but all he needed to do, really, by then was to bend over the apparently dying Mimi with his acoustic guitar and sing her the song he’d been working on all year. He was present in the moment, anyway, a Hollywood rewrite of Puccini’s finale, and the fact that it didn’t quite play wasn’t really his fault. The epilogue that actually finished the evening, with original “Rent” cast members, including Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs, joining the new kids onstage for a reprise of “Seasons of Love,” turned on any waterworks the play proper may have missed.