Rent Live: Did It Live Up to the Hype?


Pamela Littky

The all-star cast included Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis, and R&B/hip hop singer Tinashe as Mimi Marquez. Brandon Victor Nixon played the role of Tom Collins, drag star Valentina was Angel Dumott Schunard, and Mario was Benny Coffin. Vanessa Hudgens and Kiersey Clemons played the duo Maureen and Joanne, respectively.

Angela Torricella, Editor-in-Chief

Jonathan Larson’s critically-acclaimed rock opera Rent has been a fan favorite since its debut in the 90’s. The timeless story of struggling artists in New York City has resonated with countless theater lovers. The story follows filmmaker Mark Cohen and his friends through their struggle to connect with friends and lovers while the shadow of the AIDS crisis looms over them. Themes of loss, acceptance, and self-discovery make Rent one of the most touching musicals of all time, so fans were ecstatic to hear that Fox would be producing a live version of the musical. The all-star cast was to include Disney veteran and Hamilton star Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis, and R&B/hip hop singer Tinashe as Mimi Marquez. Brandon Victor Nixon, who blew audiences away as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, played the role of Tom Collins, drag star Valentina was Angel Dumott Schunard, and Mario was Benny Coffin. Vanessa Hudgens and Kiersey Clemons played the legendary duo Maureen and Joanne, respectively.

The cast initially caused slight outrage among the theater community because of the star-status of the actors. Fox frequently casts their live productions according to fame, not necessarily the fit of the actor. There are exceptions, of course, but fans were skeptical of the performances they would get from the actors who has little musical theater experience. I myself tried to stay relatively neutral on my opinion of the actors–I’d judge them on their performance the night of the broadcast.

Yet I would never get to judge the actors on their live performances, technically. The night of the broadcast, I had a track meet, of course. So I was desperate to stream the performance on my laptop. As the opening scene appeared on my screen, I realized small text in the bottom left corner of the screen that indicated that portions of the special were pre-recorded. Puzzled, I just continued watching, only to have my streaming service crashed within thirty seconds. This happened to thousands of viewers throughout New York City–a city filled with millenials without cable. Was I devastated? Yes. But I got over it quickly. I would watch Rent: Live in its entirety the next day.

Why wasn’t Rent: Live actually live? The day before the live broadcast, the cast did a full run of the show, in full dress. Toward the end of the show, Brennin Hunt injured his foot, fortunately not during the show, but while on a break. The show stopped abruptly, and the dress rehearsal ended. Hunt was brought to the hospital, got an x-ray, and found out he broke his foot. Normally, his understudy would fill in for him the next day. Yet there was a small issue–Fox did not hire understudies. Thankfully, the dress rehearsal was recorded in the case that something went wrong during the live broadcast–the sound cuts out or some other technical difficulty. So there was a show to broadcast that Sunday night, but most of it was not live. The cast and choreographer managed to adjust the closing scene choreography so Hunt could sit during the scene, so the last scene was indeed live. In addition, the audience that showed up to view the live performance was treated to a live concert of all the songs from the show.

As for the actual performances of the actors, my opinion is very mixed. The cast was clearly casted according to fame, and many of them did not live up to the high standards of the original cast of Rent. Jordan Fisher was an excellents Mark Cohen–he captured the isolation of the character very well, and his energy was outstanding. Hunt’s performance was also good; his voice was powerful and his acting was good. He and Tinashe had great chemistry, and Tinashe herself gave Mimi a flare the fans longed to see. Brandon Victor Nixon was incredible; he put on the greatest performance of the night. His rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” was heart-wrenching and overflowing with emotion. Yet, the other characters left something to be desired. Vanessa Hudgens over-acted the entire show–her character felt forced and honestly irritated me. Her vocals were okay, but she still sounds like she did in High School Musical. Just like in 2006, her fellow castmates outshined her. Valentina had great energy, but she is just not a singer. Angel is a very vocally challenging role, and she did not have the talent to deliver it well. Mario has a nice voice, but his character felt hollow. I did not connect with Benny at all, and although he is originally a character with a ton of development throughout the show, I did not receive any of that from Mario. Lastly, and perhaps the most disappointing, was Kiersey Clemons. I have no idea who this girl is, but I know she is not a singer. Joanne is usually a vocal powerhouse, hitting the iconic whistle tone in “Seasons of Love”. In this production they had a separate soloist for that portion of the song, and I can see why. Clemons gave the character little dynamic, and her mediocre singing took away from her performance as a whole.

Overall, Rent: Live was alright. The standout actors kept me watching it, as well as the cameos of the original cast members at the end of the broadcast. The live cast was in no way comparable to the original cast at all. Some of them were good, few of them were outstanding, and many of them were disappointing. Yet, the fact that the story of Rent was broadcasted to so many people is amazing. It covers the topics of the 90’s no one really talks about–the AIDS crisis and the exposition of differing sexualities and gender fluidity. Although the production was not perfect, the music of Jonathan Larson still touched audiences across the country.