As 2019 draws to a close, TheaterMania looks back on some of the most jaw-dropping stories of the year.
Fox's live broadcast of Jonathan Larson's seminal musical Rent was one of the most anticipated television events of last winter.
In the end, a broken foot not only derailed the show, but it destroyed the entire genre.
During the final dress rehearsal back in January, actor Brennin Hunt, who played Roger, broke his foot running down a flight of stairs to go change costumes before the last scene. The unfortunate injury landed Hunt in a plaster cast and put the network, producers, and creative team in a tough spot: How could they present an energetic live musical on multiple sets when its leading man couldn't walk?
Their response was completely antithetical to both the theater industry's favorite dictum, "The show must go on," and the storied history of this particular musical, where the show did, in fact, go on following the untimely and tragic death of its creator on the night of its first off-Broadway preview.
Back in 1996 when Larson unexpectedly passed following an aortic aneurism, the company sung through the material that night for family and friends. Rent Live could have gone the New York Theatre Workshop route, as it did in studio that night. Instead, and with no understudy present (despite original cast member Adam Pascal being on set), Fox just aired all but the last scene of the final dress rehearsal, which had been taped for contingency but wasn't supposed to ever see the light of day.
It was a move that was disrespectful to the entire cast, who weren't expecting their last run-through to be aired on national television. It was a move that was especially disrespectful to Hunt, who had to not only deal with the horror of getting hurt on the night before the show, but had to rewatch all the events leading up to it. And it was a move that was disrespectful to the home viewers, who most definitely would have appreciated any aspect of the promised live-ness, instead of a moderately engaging taped edition. (Fox quickly released clips of the staged concert that happened on set, but they were eventually taken down.)
To be clear, it's not Hunt's fault. In the insurance industry, it's called an act of God — no one could have predicted that he would hurt himself. Unfortunately, though, it proved to be the death knell of live musicals on network television. Only 3.5 million viewers tuned in, a stark contrast to the 18 million who watched NBC's Sound of Music in 2013. Immediately following the tanking of Rent, NBC canceled its planned broadcast of Hair, citing a need for a title that's more family-friendly. They have not announced a replacement. Fox hasn't announced a follow up, either. (We did get The Little Mermaid on ABC, but it wasn't a fully live musical, it was an airing of the movie interspersed with a decked-out concert.)
At least Hunt bounced back, closing out Pretty Woman on Broadway during the last two weeks of its run. But when it came to Rent, we're sure he was thinking why it couldn't have been any day but today?