HomeTelevisionRent Live: An Endearing, Flawed, and Occasionally Powerful Television Event

Rent Live: An Endearing, Flawed, and Occasionally Powerful Television Event

Rent Live

First, some context:

Rent is perhaps the only pop culture artifact I’m truly nostalgic about.

My parents fell in love with the musical as soon as it premiered on Broadway in 1996. The soundtrack played in my house endlessly and, as I got older, my parents took me to see the show on stage multiple times. I sat through a terrible film adaptation, a wonderful recording of the final Broadway performance, and countless local productions. And I have many vivid memories of talking about the show with my friends in middle school.

But the personal connection runs deeper than that, even if I didn’t quite realize its importance in the moment. Rent was probably the first experience I ever had with queer culture — as a young boy questioning my sexuality, seeing such vivid, lively, and lovable LGBTQ+ representation meant a lot to me, even if it took me a few more years to truly come to terms with who I am. It was also my first history lesson on the AIDS epidemic, a topic that is not adequately covered in school, and one I didn’t have the chance to learn more about until I took it upon myself to read about it. Rent is a time capsule of the late 80s/early 90s, and an important teaching tool — while flawed, its importance as a cultural document is undeniable.

That’s why I wanted to be sure I had the chance to write about this television event. Rent, unfortunately, never had the chance to be properly represented for those who did not have the privilege to see it onstage. For many — including young, queer kids in middle America — this is possibly their first exposure to the musical, and not acknowledging Rent‘s importance as a phenomenon is, simply, insane… and maybe even a little insensitive. To approach it without proper context would be less than ideal.

And, as soon as the show started, I felt very relieved that I would be the one reviewing this for the site. Because this show, like many live shows before it, was messy. Brenin Hunt, the actor playing one of the show’s eight principle roles, broke his ankle during a dress rehearsal, forcing Fox to air footage from the rehearsal for much of the runtime, including the entire first act. This led to some disappointing performances and flat-out weak moments. But Rent is a powerful production — and, through the technical glitches, its emotional core managed to shine through.

Now, it’s almost inexcusable that Fox didn’t have an understudy ready to go, or that the dress rehearsal footage apparently didn’t undergo a proper sound mix (the crowd and band occasionally drowned out the vocals). Many of the actors also — understandably — used far less energy during their big numbers during the dress rehearsal, most likely saving their energy for the big show.

RuPaul’s Drag Race legend Valentina, playing the iconic role of Angel, suffered the worst fate, as they flubbed most of their big song’s last verse, despite nailing some complicated choreography. It’s disappointing that Fox didn’t have a Plan B — especially as the show picked up steam, and we saw what could have been had the show been fully live.



For those who don’t know, Rent follows eight friends over the course of one year in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Roommates Roger (a musician who has AIDS) and Mark (a filmmaker who does not) struggle with making enough money to pay the rent (aha) without “selling out” and compromising their artistic vision. The two set the tone for the show, with Mark narrating much of the drama and Roger providing one of the more emotional arcs, as he struggles to process his disease while forming a romantic relationship.

Taking the role of Mark, Jordan Fischer of Dancing with the Stars fame did a nice job, nailing all of his songs and displaying true stage presence. Brenin Hart, meanwhile, offered a rather standard portrayal of Roger — his vocal performance is undeniably impressive, but I can’t help but wonder what a more seasoned actor would have done with this material.

But, in true Rent fashion, it’s the more interesting supporting characters who provide the best scenes and, in this case, the best performances. As an exotic dancer trying to form a relationship with Roger, pop star Tinashe absolutely killed it. Her big song, “Out Tonight,” is one of the soundtrack’s highlights, as well as the flat-out best rock song a Broadway score has to offer. It was with this scene that Rent Live found its pulse, as the directors wisely kept the show’s terrific choreography for the production and let Tinashe’s vocals do the work.

Elsewhere, R&B singer Mario made the most of his role as Benny, the greedy landlord who serves as a sort-of antagonist for the group. It’s the least showy role, but the singer made it work. Meanwhile, live-musical pro Brandon Victor Dixon (Jesus Christ Superstar Live) did terrific work as Collins, a college professor turned anarchist who is HIV+. He was extremely charming throughout, but managed to properly break the audience’s heart during his big solo, a tragic reprise of the love song “I’ll Cover You.”

And, to briefly return to his onscreen love interest, Valentina: the drag legend may have flubbed their musical numbers a bit, but nailed all of Angel’s oft-quoted one-liners. And it must be noted that Valentina knocked their final solo out of the park — perhaps indicating what could have been had this whole show been done live.

Meanwhile, Kiersey Simmons (Hearts Beat Loud) offered a humorous take on Joanne, the Ivy League-educated lawyer in a relationship with Maureen, a bisexual performance artist who used to date Mark. Simmons is bound to break out big in Hollywood soon.

But it was her onscreen love interest who truly stole the whole show. Vanessa Hudgens’ casting in the part made famous by Idina Menzel felt odd, especially since Hudgens had previously played the role of Mimi on stage. But, as Maureen, Hudgens was an absolute blast, earning an Emmy nomination from her very first musical performance. She was funny, charming, and campy, but knew exactly when to dial it back as to not drown out the seriousness of the show. It was truly stunning work.



Those who have seen Rent on Broadway know that the show’s stage is famously sparse. There isn’t even a curtain! But, many mistakenly try to bring theatrical glamour to other productions of Rent, which frequently makes the overall show suffer. The 2005 film, for example, insists its characters are living in near poverty, but provide them with surprisingly nice living spaces and sets that feel like they’re from a back lot and not the grunge-y era of NYC Bohemia.

Rent Live, thankfully, did not make the same mistake. While the stage has definitely expanded, the sets were appropriately free of extraneous decoration. It had a gritty feel, but still let the show expand to all different corners of the studio where they were filming. This also offered unique new choreography for two of the show’s biggest musical numbers. The show’s theme song, “Seasons of Love,” is typically performed with the actors arranged in a straight line on stage. Here, the actors walked around the set, depicting some of the characters at Life Support meetings for those with AIDS, and others trying to enjoy love and friendship in the face of tragedy. It was a powerful interpretation of the song.

Meanwhile, “La Vie Boheme” is a celebration of all things queer, with the cast jumping on tables and miming sex acts to celebrate “anyone out of the mainstream.” The song, which closes Act I, is a complete joy, and a moment that fans are awfully protective of — changing it is a huge risk. In Rent Live, the cast still jumped on tables and mimed (surprisingly explicit?) sex acts, but the choreography took advantage of the larger stage and became more dynamic: the tables spun around the set, and rotating stages a la Hamilton were employed. It was a total treat.



Rent is a little different than the other musicals given live adaptations in that it’s fairly edgy. The 2005 film was toned down for a PG-13 rating, and suffered for it. Now, it’s not that Rent Live needed to incorporate f-bombs to work, but it was easy for fans to worry about how much Fox would insist on cutting from the original book. Additionally, fans worried that they would add unnecessary dialogue or silly subplots, like the godawful engagement sequence in the Christopher Columbus film.

Shockingly: not much changed. And, truthfully, I’m ready to defend most of the alterations.

Yes, the word “fuck” is gone, but La Vie Boheme‘s rather edgy lyrics stayed mostly in place… I believe that “dildo” was the only word missing. Hell, they even kept “Contact,” a musical sequence in which the three main couples have sex, in an effort to illustrate to audiences how complicated intimacy is in the era of AIDS. And, perhaps most importantly, the show’s queerness remained fully in-tact.

On the negative end of the spectrum, the removed pop culture references were mostly replaced by clunky dialogue. Rent is already a musical with the occasional head-scratcher of a line, and while it’s true that some of the pop culture references in the original book may be lost in time, replacing lyrics with random words never feels organic. At the very least, all the great spoken dialogue (“There will always be women in rubber flirting with me! Give me a break!”) remained completely in tact.

But, additional dialogue was added, which ignited some debate on Twitter. The biggest change is that Mark would frequently provide statistics about the AIDS crisis and how many lives were lost to it, contextualizing the Life Support scenes as well as “Seasons of Love.” Many complained that this dialogue was unnecessary and, for the core audience, that may be true — it could understandably feel like a “no, duh” moment to some. But Rent, as I mentioned before, was something of an educational tool for me. I learned nothing about the AIDS crisis during my school years — for those young people watching Rent for the first time, I imagine that they’re equally ignorant to that dark chapter in history. And I fully believe that the new dialogue helped them to learn and, hopefully, inspired them to find out more.



Reviewing Rent the musical is unnecessary. No, it’s not a perfect musical — but it was thoroughly reviewed by theater critics in 1996. In the time since then, it’s become a work of extreme importance. That importance doesn’t excuse the problems, and if Rent doesn’t work for you as a whole, that’s fine. But if you approach Rent Live without understanding the historical context and mere importance of the musical, you’re reviewing it wrong.

Judged as a live show, this was not a perfect experience. It pains me to know that we’ll never be able to see a truly live performance — it could have been a total stunner, but the issues with the dress rehearsal footage hurt it. Yet, by the time the credits rolled, I was deeply moved and crying for the third time during its three-hour runtime. Rent is an important piece of musical theater, and what made it so significant could not be hidden away by technical glitches. For me, it was a nice trip down memory lane, and watching it with my family certainly added to the nostalgic experience. But I’m more excited for the new generation of kids who will be inspired and feel seen by this show.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

Most Recent

Stay Connected