Fox's Not-So-Live Rent Proves Why You Should Always Cast an Understudy
A broken foot derails an entire live broadcast, but don't blame Brennin Hunt.
The show went on in 1996.
When Jonathan Larson died unexpectedly on the morning of Rent's first off-Broadway preview at New York Theatre Workshop, the cast and crew came together to perform his groundbreaking rock opera that night in his memory, for an audience of friends and family.
The show did not go on — not live, anyway — in 2019.
During the final dress rehearsal of Fox's highly touted live Rent, actor Brennin Hunt, playing Roger, broke his foot right before the last scene. In the wake of this unexpected accident, which landed Hunt in a plaster cast, the network and producers made a move that was completely antithetical to the show's legacy and thoroughly disrespectful to the cast and crew. Instead of replacing Hunt with an understudy (there wasn't one) or going live to a partially restaged concert version of the production (as the in-studio audience apparently saw), Fox aired all but the last scene of that final dress rehearsal, which had been taped for contingency purposes but wasn't actually supposed to see the light of day.
So I find myself torn. A final dress rehearsal isn't supposed to be viewed by the general public, and critics certainly aren't supposed to review them. But that's what millions of people saw. The final dress rehearsal of this Rent inadvertently became the final record of the production. And as I watched it, I thought, "Poor guy doesn't know he's gonna break his foot in three hours."
In the end, though, Hunt was one of the standouts in this three-hour production, which often felt stiff and tentative, and was only occasionally filled with the spontaneity and excitement of live theater (mostly when it went live at the very end). But I'm a lifelong Renthead. I practically lived at the Nederlander Theatre when the original Broadway production was running. Warts and all, this Rent captured a lot of the show's emotional magic, and I found myself as attached to the story of these starving artists battling poverty and AIDS and addiction as I did when I was much younger.
That's mostly because it was so clearly created with the show's legions of fans in mind. Staged by original director Michael Greif, this production proved to be a loving homage to his and Larson's 23-year-old vision for the piece. Sonya Tayeh's kinetic choreography was built in the style of Marlies Yearby's work from 1996, while production designer Jason Sherwood impressively evoked the abstract, scaffolding-filled design of Paul Clay. Original costume designer Angela Wendt smartly reimagined her work, nodding to the past through Mimi's aqua-colored latex outfit and Maureen's catsuit, but simultaneously discarded other iconic attire (did anyone else notice Mark's original costume in a pile of clothes for sale during "Christmas Bells"?).
Even smarter was hiring a playwright to adapt the book for the screen. Kristoffer Diaz did a miraculous job of creating a screenplay that retained the show's opera-size emotions while also routing the material more firmly in a time and place for new viewers. Yes, I'm sad to have lost certain lyrics, and I'm sure the cutting of the Waiter's monologue during "La Vie Bohème" screwed up a lot of the food choices at viewing parties, but the way Diaz worked "Seasons of Love" into the plot packed a wallop.
As for the cast, you have to feel for them. Only Vanessa Hudgens (Maureen) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Tom Collins) performed like it was opening night, and their respective renditions of "Over the Moon" and the "I'll Cover You" reprise were the fiery highlights. Jordan Fisher (Mark) and Kiersey Clemons (Joanne) were committed but tentative, while Valentina (Angel) was game but out of her element. Hunt was a great Roger, and had sexy chemistry with Tinashe's Mimi. The show also got a boost from Broadway talent among the ensemble: Keala Settle as the fabulous "Seasons of Love" soloist and the Life Support group therapy leader; Matthew Saldivar, in a variety of roles; and J. Elaine Marcos, who was hilarious as Alexi Darling. And when the original cast came out for the finale, yeah, I got weepy.
So it wasn't a total loss, even when the studio audience drowned out the actors, and Alex Rudzinski's hyperactive television direction made it hard to focus. The fact that Rent, a show that embraces the gay community so wholeheartedly and doesn't shy away from the horrors of disease and addiction, was aired on Fox in 2019 is a milestone in and of itself.
But it's also a lesson to everyone involved. Things can and will go wrong in a live medium, so there should always be a backup plan. In fact, some of the best performers to come out of Rent on Broadway were swings and understudies like Norbert Leo Butz and Karen Olivo. I'll forever regret not being in that studio audience in California, where the would-be live Rent became a concert with Hunt performing in a wheelchair. Hopefully, they'll release the whole thing one day instead of a few short clips.