Thursday, January 31, 2019

RENT Not-So-Live from the Perspective of a Studio Audience Member

By now, if you're the type of person who cares about theater and/or television (and if you're reading this, I assume you are), you're aware of what happened with what was supposed to be Rent: Live on Fox. Brennin Hunt, the actor playing Roger, injured his ankle during a quick change before the last scene of the dress rehearsal. Because he was too injured to perform the way it was blocked and because TV musicals don't have understudies, the show couldn't go on as planned, so Fox aired the dress rehearsal, save for the last 15 minutes, which were live. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for both and my experience was such a positive one that I wanted to offer another perspective, since the reviews I've seen have been overwhelming negative.

Of course, we had no idea at the time that the dress rehearsal was going to be what was shown on TV (had I known, I probably would have fixed up my hair a little more). They ran the show almost the whole way through, commercial breaks and all, with almost no issues until the last scene. The commercial countdown clock went to zero, but the show didn't start. We waited and still nothing happened until eventually we were told of Brennin's Hunt injury and that they would finish the show with him sitting on a table. They said he rolled his ankle, but we had no idea the severity of the injury and whether he'd be able to perform the next night. They closed the show as planned, with the original cast members coming out for "Seasons of Love." 

From my perspective, that dress rehearsal was a success. I didn't feel like the performers were holding back, although some of the numbers came across weaker than others and I'm sure the actors would have loved the chance to redo them. But for the most part, I liked this cast, particularly Jordan Fisher and of course, Brandon Victor Dixon. I was seated in the section where "La Vie Boheme" was staged (you can even see me on TV during that scene) and that was a particular highlight due to Fisher's dancing ability and the fact that they were able to keep so many of the lines I thought they would cut. 

The energy from the crowd was infectious that whole night. From what I've read, on TV, the audience came across as too loud, so maybe the sound could have been better handled, but when live musicals don't have an audience, there are awkward silences. I also like the way this one incorporated the audience--giving us candles to hold during "Will I?," which was a beautiful moment, and having Mark and Roger in a mosh pit for "What You Own" (shockingly, not where the injury happened). Sure, I could complain about some of the lyric changes (how dare they replace, "Think twice before you poo-poo it"?), but mostly they stayed true to the original. When I heard they were doing this musical on live television, I thought they would have to censor so much more than they did, so I'm thrilled that they kept so many of the lyrics (I learned a lot about what you can and can't say on TV).

On Sunday night, I was seated in a completely different section (directly in front of the apartment, the set that sees the most action), and I was excited to have a different view. Ten minutes before 5 pm, Marc Platt, the producer, gave a speech just like he did the night before about how Rent is about community, but this time he explained that due to Hunt's injury, the dress rehearsal would be shown on TV and it would be playing on screens for us in the studio, but the cast still wanted to perform for us, so they would also be singing for us during many numbers. Then for the last scene, we would actually go live. We were also told that we could take photos and videos and post as much as possible on social media except during the live portion. So we did. And that's when those watching on TV got wind of what was happening in the studio. As others have noted, this concert version felt reminiscent of the first preview of Rent at NYTW, the night after Jonathan Larson's death and I understand why that would have been way more exciting to watch, but I also recognize why it would have been logistically impossible to show what we were seeing on TV. They worked on this production for an entire year. I don't think they could have re-blocked everything in less than 24 hours, especially with all those cameras. Here's a great Twitter thread explaining this better than I could.

Jordan Fisher and Kiersey Clemons performing
"Tango: Maureen" on Sunday night. 😍 
Those of us in the audience were happy to share our experiences on social media, not to brag, but because to share what the cast was able to accomplish, since they weren't showing it on TV. I tried to post some videos on Twitter, but my phone is pretty crappy. There are some better quality ones on the official @RENTonFOX Twitter page, and I highly recommend watching those if you haven't. I'm guessing if they release a DVD, it will include a lot more footage from the studio.

The numbers were not always performed on the same sets as the night before, probably to make sure everyone around the studio got to see an equal amount of the numbers. The cast members sounded even better than they did the night before (maybe because the pressure was off) and they had fun, playing with Hunt's wheelchair. They improvised, Fisher performed the "La Vie Boheme" choreography on the floor rather than a table. Audience members sang along. It felt like a celebration of this musical I've loved for over 20 years. 

I feel terrible for those involved that the show was so poorly received and they didn't really get to do what they spent a year preparing for, but I'm grateful that they still put on a show. It's an experience I'll never forget.