By Darren Franich
January 28, 2019 at 02:01 AM EST
Ray Mickshaw/FOX

There simply had to be a better way to rescue Rent: Live.

The Fox musical extravaganza experienced two tragedies over the weekend. Tragedy No. 1: Star Brennin Hunt broke his ankle during dress rehearsal. Tragedy No. 2: No one making Rent: Live ever heard the word “understudy.”

With no backup Roger, the show pulled the ripcord. TV viewers on Sunday were mostly watching a replay of Saturday’s filmed rehearsal. Until the actual live finale, featuring singalong cameos from the original Rent cast — and a table-ridden Hunt gamely performing with his foot in a fresh cast.

Was the production just too ambitious for its own good? There were so many cameras swirling around that giant set. You could see multiple planes of action, performed in-the-round, requiring the actors to dance towards a dozen audience directions. The first transcendent performance was “Light My Candle,” with Mimi (Tinashe) and Roger flirting through the apartment set, their movements tracked from what looked like a thousand angles.

Rent: Live was best in small interactions like this, quiet moments filmed grandly. The staging of “La Vie Boheme” just looked rather ridiculous by comparison, as gritty and authentic as any “Smelly Cat” episode of Friends. Whereas the show hit a never-to-be-repeated high point during “Will I,” following Mark (Jordan Fisher) on a walk around the sadsack block. That number was filmed in what looked like one long, unbroken take, scattering the cast across a stage. Cool! Even cooler: When Tinashe sang “Out Tonight,” the camera followed her doing sultry semi-parkour through the rafters, with a filmed POV that kept Evil Deading towards her. (Tinashe can really sing, but some of the other cast members had high-note issues. Were they saving themselves for the Sunday that never came?)

The impressive set of Rent: Live successfully conjured a true lost New York world, the East Village as a dystopia of rat tunnels and exposed piping, graffiti in the bathroom, and only the worst people had cell phones. A bit of nostalgia here, no question: Imagine young adults who still care about selling out! And ah, the days when you could be young in Manhattan with no money and no opinions about cable television!

Some magic — all of it? — was lost in the tape delay. My wife wondered why the producers didn’t just quickly hire someone who played Roger onstage. To which I — a self-declared expert who saw Rent all of once — mumbled something about the difference between theater choreography and TV choreography. Okay then, smart guy, why not just put Hunt on the table for the whole show? Mumble mumble choreography mumble mumble. The final musical number was the most fun even if it was chaotic — maybe because the whole appeal of this live TV musical genre is the possibility of chaos. Grease: Live (from 2016) was an invigorating extravaganza, requiring vertiginous camerawork and playful meta-choreography — and still, the second-best part was unquestionably when Wendell Pierce’s golf cart almost tipped over a curb.

You wonder if Rent: Live would’ve been better as a messier, on-the-fly, put-Brennin-Hunt-in-a-wheelbarrow show. You wonder if something is lost when a glossy recreation of an Off-Broadway masterwork is too elaborate for improvisation. (In fairness, the producers could claim that, like, the West Coast audience was always going to get a tape delay. But going non-live still felt awkward, like some basic existential rule had been breached.)

Here’s one final late fix for the Broken Foot Breakdown: Rent without Roger? You can never praise the show’s late creator Jonathan Larson too much. The show’s success was a landmark for everything you can think of, LGBTQ representation first and foremost. Circa 1996 it was uncommon to, say, watch a scene where a straight dude meets his ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend. In 2019, I swear I’ve seen that subplot on two different superhero shows. When Kiersey Clemons’ Joanne took the lead in her dance with Mark, the audience whoop-whooped: Yes, defenestrate those archaic gender roles, defenestrate them all! Every appearance of ecstatic, doomed Angel (played by Valentina here) earned what sounded like a standing ovation. Whereas Roger, some Shawn Mullins notion of a rocking guitar hero, feels creakier than a hundred old answering machines.

Rent was always going to be a dicey proposition for this kind of televised experience. On Twitter, our desert called cyberland, theater heads shouted over the goofy lyric changes. Who knew the Fox network was too prudish to say “dildo”? They kept “Contact,” a.k.a. “the one with the symbolic orgy,” though you saw nastier dance moves in the constant advertisements for FX’s Fosse/Verdon. I scan some unobserved crankiness in my generation’s tendency to grouchily reconsider Rent: Why are these kids so shocked that apartment living costs money!! Truly, Larson created a young-person show here. The devoted portrayal of a society plagued by HIV, AIDS, and an uncaring world will always resonate. But bohemians singing about bohemia is probably most captivating to teenagers who badly want to be bohemians. Like, Jordan Fisher really did look (first world problems!) too handsome to play Mark. But past a certain age, all twentysomethings look prettier than you ever did.

Did Rent get some new teen fans tonight? Tinashe’s performance was very strong. As Tom Collins, Brandon Victor Dixon really brought the house down in his big funeral number. Every HIV support-group session was intensely moving; I would probably cry if I watched those scenes performed by a cast of microwaves. (The Greatest Showman‘s Keala Settle stole some memorable moments as the support group leader.) Vanessa Hudgens got the superstar treatment, introduced via motorcycle flourish, flying overhead during “Over the Moon.” Hudgens was so goddamn great in Grease: Live and she was goddamn great here, locking into Maureen’s blithely committed egomania, really bringing her A+ game to the dress rehearsal. Vanessa Hudgens should be in every live TV musical, in conclusion.

Lots to enjoy — and yet, there was something a bit remote about this Rent. The imaginative staging of the first act dwindled away until the writhing under the sheets during “Contact” was about as evocative as a CENSORED bar. I hope the ratings are good because I want the live musical trend to continue long enough for Hudgens to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: Live. But Rent: Live may be best remembered for teaching us all an obvious lesson. If you’re gonna call yourself a live musical, then, well. B-

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