I guess everyone's talking about Rent Live today - many of them much more qualified to opine than me. But I do have some thoughts although probably not original ones.
It's universally agreed that Jonathan Larson's Rent contemporized the face of musical theater when it was first staged in 1994. Loosely based on Puccini's La Bohème, it tells the story of a group of young artists struggling to survive under the shadow of HIV/AIDS in Lower Manhattan's East Village in the 80s. For many who came of age in that decade, it showcased on Broadway for the first time characters who looked like us and struggled with the same issues, and it featured music that sounded like our music. That was life-changing for a lot of people - including many who were inspired by it to then create ground-breaking art of their own.
If you've not seen Rent, or weren't around during its Broadway run, Kristopher Diaz (also a playwright) had some recommendations before watching Rent Live last night:
Live > Not Live
Sunday afternoon before the show aired I read that the actor playing Roger had injured his ankle at the final dress rehearsal the night before. The report said that the production would use some of the taped segments where Roger was required to dance or otherwise run around.
A taped back-up is a regular thing with these live television stagings. They did it for Grease when they thought the outside scenes were going to be rained out the night of the show. As a back-up, they had a taped version of a dress rehearsal. Turns out they didn't need it but that is the common practice.
But then after the first scene of Rent Live, there was a message from the entire cast. They said that Roger had broken his foot and so they would be showing a previously recorded performance. Like, the whole thing was taped. Only the finale, which would include the original Broadway cast members, would be live.
And viewers everywhere wondered why that was the option the producers chose. It begs the immediate question, Why no understudies? It's a fairly large ensemble; surely some of them could have learned the lead roles as understudies. Or why not write it in? Roger literally spends half the show sitting on a table with his guitar. The whole first scene (until the cast announcement) I thought he was performing injured because he just...sat there. They could've made that work, even in the short time frame. One person online even suggested that Fox should have re-run Grease Live and aired Rent Live at a later date. That might be a cost-prohibitive solution but still one to consider.
Because here's the thing: That actual live finale? Was awesome. The rest of the show? The taped part? Very low-energy. The difference wasn't just apparent, it was glaring. And it felt like a huge opportunity had been wasted.
Stage Performers > Pop Stars
Producers seem to believe they can cast one or two stage performers (or one stage star and a cross-over performer, like Sara Bareilles in Jesus Christ Superstar) in these teleplays and they'll be strong enough to carry the show. Then they can round out the cast with pop stars who will draw more non-theater-geek viewers. I personally do not think this has proven true, and last night was one of the worst examples. Brandon Victor Dixon and Vanessa Hudgens (another crossover) tried awfully hard to carry the show but that's difficult when they're not on stage the whole time. Maureen doesn't even show up until almost the end of Act I.
You know who is onstage a lot? Mimi. And she was played by someone named Tinashe. That's it, Just Tinashe. So I'm guessing pop star? Her voice was fine, but weak. So weak. It's like that time I watched a concert of Les Miserables on PBS and they'd cast one of the Jonas brothers as Marius. Just weak, and unable to even carry the part, much less the show. Rosario Dawson did a better job in the movie, and I don't even think she's a trained singer.
The gay audience was thrilled to have actual drag queen Valentina in the role of Angel but - while she is plenty flamboyant for the part - she had trouble singing on-key all night.
Theater Audience > Concertgoers
I truly wish they’d do these live teleplays more like a Broadway show and less like a concert. I want to hear the performances, not people screaming over them. When they did Sound of Music live, it was weird that there was no audience; I think the viewers and performers alike found it awkward that there was no applause at the end of a number. But this trend to have a screaming audience in the vein of a Super Bowl halftime show is even worse in the other extreme. Especially when - as we've already determined - most of the singers aren't powerful enough to sing over the noise.
Clearly they're still figuring out the best way to do these live television productions, and I'm glad they're going to keep trying. I understand the next one planned is Hair, which is hard for me to get excited about. I doubt you'd see millions of viewers raging online if they showed a previously recorded version of that one. I wish they had made better decisions around this much beloved show.