Directed by Michael Greif, Alex Rudzinski
Fox Broadcasting Company
Reviewed by Alina Oswald
Many years ago I went to see the award-winning RENT on Broadway. To this day I still find it an unforgettable experience. I remember that I was moved to tears throughout the performance, in particular by an enigmatic, intriguing character called Angel.
Several years later, in 2005, RENT the Broadway musical was made into a movie, which was also a musical. Luckily, I got to interview members of the cast for A&U, and listen to them talk, among other things, about the signature song, “Seasons of Love,” and explain why “love” is “a fine way of measuring time.”
And so, the other day, when I heard about the most recent production of RENT being aired, live, on Fox, on January 27, I knew that I had to find the channel and tune in. Then it was announced that Brennin Hunt (playing Roger) had injured his foot and, therefore, the show that aired was in part recorded during the Saturday dress rehearsal and live only at the end.
Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revolutionary rock opera RENT opened in 1996, a short time after Larson’s untimely death. RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends living in New York City’s Alphabet City, in a time of AZT, struggling to express themselves through their art and stay alive, while dealing with drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS epidemic of that time. Roger (Brennin Hunt) is an aspiring songwriter who wants to write “one great song.” He meets and falls for an exotic dancer, Mimi, played by R&B singer Tinashe. Mark (Jordan Fisher) captures life around him on film. His ex, Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens) and her girlfriend, Joanne (Kiersey Johnson) try to figure out their new relationship, while professor Tom Collins (Brandon Victor Dumont) finds his soulmate in Angel, played by Valentina, a star of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They struggle to pay rent to their landlord and former roommate, Benny (R&B singer Mario).
In many ways this most recent production of RENT brings back to life the story of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. And yet, while watching the young performers bring to life Mark, Angel, Collins, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, and Joanne, while surrounded by a young audience cheering them on, I wonder if today’s young audience can truly understand the story unfolding on stage. I wonder about the generational divide, not only related to the way we look at HIV and AIDS, but also to how we interpret, today, shows like RENT, their symbolism and message regarding the epidemic, gender identity, social injustices, and so on.
Watching the performance I can’t help but long for the original show…or even the 2008 Broadway show that I also saw. There are plenty of similarities and subtleties to take us back to the time and place of the original RENT—the music, memorable as always; costumes; and some performances, in particular by Vanessa Hudgens (Maureen), Brandon Victor Dixon (Collins) and Valentina (Angel). And as in the original RENT, in this most recent production, Angel still stands out, as enigmatic, energetic and intriguing as always. What I find different is a positive, promising change in how many of us perceive and understand Angel today, and how we can now better connect with this complex, multilayered character, especially in terms of gender identity and expression.
The highlight of the show happened at the very end, when members of the original cast—including Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin—appeared on stage to join in performing “Seasons of Love,” a reminder of how powerful this show can actually be. That said, I wonder if the new production of RENT is powerful enough to inspire its (young) audience the way the original one inspired its generation. Is this new production of RENT powerful enough to ignite that kind of passion and new conversations surrounding today’s HIV epidemic?
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.