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5 Live-Musical Trends to Look Out For in Rent on Fox

The "TV musical" is a new genre evolving before our eyes — here's where Rent fits in.

Mario, Jordan Fisher, Tinashe, Brennin Hunt, Vanessa Hudgens, Kiersey Clemons, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Valentina in a promotional image for Rent.
(© 2019 Fox Broadcasting Co.)

Fox's upcoming live staging of Jonathan Larson's Rent is the next in a steady stream of television musicals that began in 2013 with NBC's The Sound of Music Live! Since then, TV audiences have witnessed Peter Pan Live! (NBC), The Wiz Live! (NBC), Grease Live! (Fox), Hairspray Live! (NBC), A Christmas Story Live! (Fox), and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (NBC). There was also Fox's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again, a "two-hour event special" presented in 2016 (between Grease Live and A Christmas Story Live!), which occupied a similar entertainment space without being actually, you know…live.

While watching these in-the-moment performances has certainly been exciting, it has also been fascinating to witness the evolution of this new entertainment category. With each new live musical, the networks and their artists are drawing on the successes of their predecessors while also breaking new ground. Earlier this month, TheaterMania toured the Rent set, housed on Stage 16 on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, to get a sense of what's in store for its latest live production. Here are five live-musical trends we noticed that audiences can look forward to when Rent airs live on January 27.


1. A Live Audience

Fox's Rent will incorporate a visible live audience, an element we first saw in Grease Live! in 2016. Like the audience for Grease, Rent's in-house viewers will sometimes be integrated into the action. Unlike in the Grease setup, however, the 1,500 people on hand for Rent will be able to witness most of the action taking place onstage, though not as much as they could in the proscenium-based Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.


2. A Compact Set

In order to facilitate an engaging live experience like the one that audiences of Jesus Christ Superstar Live enjoyed, Rent designer Jason Sherwood has created a set reminiscent of an in-the-round stage. Housed entirely on a single soundstage, Rent's set will feature audience members on four sides who will be able to see all the action (with occasional obstruction) through the impressionistic set pieces. This update from the days of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and even A Christmas Story will give Rent a more theatrical feel.


3. An Increased Focus on Dance

The Sound of Music Live! included almost no choreography. But since then, the prominence of dance in live television productions has risen steadily. Grease Live!, for instance, starred Julianne Hough, a former professional dancer and Dancing With the Stars performer and host. Rent takes another page out of the Grease playbook, with a team featuring TV dance show veterans: So You Think You Can Dance judge Vanessa Hudgens, who stars as Maureen; SYTYCD alum choreographer Sonya Tayeh; and 2018 SYTYCD winner Hannahlei Cabanilla.


4. Pop-Culture Personalities

Since the earliest iterations of the new live TV musical genre, their casts have comprised a combination of Broadway and pop-culture stars (e.g. Carrie Underwood and Laura Benanti in The Sound of Music). But as time passes, these productions have trended toward principals with more screen cachet than stage time. Which doesn't mean that the new generation lacks the chops for live performance. Rent will star several veterans of the TV musical genre, including Jordan Fisher, Vanessa Hudgens, and Brandon Victor Dixon (with all three boasting Broadway credits as well). They will be joined by RuPaul's Drag Race's Valentina, Disney alum Kiersey Clemons, and more.


5. Edginess

The Sound of Music and Peter Pan are about as tepid as they come, but following those two offerings, the world of televised live musicals started getting a whole lot riskier. Starting with The Wiz Live!, with the possible exception of A Christmas Story Live!, each new production has had a subversive edge. Of course, the most risk-taking shows have undergone at least a little bowdlerizing (Rentheads have already noticed a taming of lyrics in the song "La Vie Bohème "), but clearly when it comes to live TV musicals, sex(y) sells.