July 20, 2019

‘Rent’ Still Timeless after Fox ‘Live’ Performance

Original Broadway Cast of "Rent."

President Trump vowed to “eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years” in his Feb. 5 State of the Union address. Fox’s recent airing of “Rent Live!,” with its lyrical cry “Fight AIDS!” underscored that this public health message, albeit conveyed through art, is as powerful and needed as ever.

“Seasons of Love” has been a go-to anthem for every musical theater buff since the 1996 premiere of Tony-award winning musical “Rent,” and Fox’s production of “Rent Live!” brought new life to a show that could have easily become dated.

It didn’t matter that the “live” production was only partially live because Brennin Hunt, the actor playing Roger, broke his foot at the previous night’s dress rehearsal. It didn’t matter that “Rent” was set in the mid-’90s milieu of impoverished artists in New York City who were plagued by the AIDS epidemic. All that mattered was that the musical felt fresh and alive.

Somehow, the production directed by Michael Grief went one stage further. He made “Rent” feel brand new.

Live theater and television have never been comfortable bedfellows. In recent years, the United Kingdom’s Royal National Theatre has paved the way by live-broadcasting performances in more theaters, but there is usually a flat quality to theater that is filmed for television. “Rent Live!” achieved something revolutionary because it did not hide the audience or pretend this was not a play, but incorporated the audience, the surroundings and the atmosphere. The production was a fusion of live theater, rock concert and television movie. With brilliant direction, they reimagined “Rent” and updated it for a new generation.

The set brought New York City to life, with space to move that would be near-impossible in a traditional proscenium-arch theater. The most immersive play I have seen was “Starlight Express” with a full roller-skate circuit built around the audience for its race sequences, but “Rent Live!” took things to a new level.

In the 1960s, French dramatist and author Antonin Artaud wrote in his book “The Theater of the Absurd” about “total theatre.” It was to be an all-encompassing experience which would hit audience members in all five senses: touch, taste, smell, feeling and hearing. Artaud described sitting in a theater where you would see things on all sides at all levels, like a circus for the senses.

In full disclosure, I am what is known as a “Renthead.” At age 21, I was singing the artist’s rebellious end-of first-act song “La Vie Boheme” at full volume — “to riding your bike midday past the three-piece suits / To fruits — To no absolutes.” There was a romance about the world captured by the musical’s writer-composer Jonathan Larson, with its fast-paced, nearly hip-hop lyrics that foreshadow the speed of Hamilton — “To loving tension, no pension, to more than one dimension, to starving for attention.” (Although before long, I did begin to value saving for a pension, and it wasn’t much fun starving while making art).

“Rent” was inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme,” a tale of 1830s Paris, where starving artists pursue their dreams amid poverty and the threats of tuberculosis.

The tragic irony of “Rent” is that the musical’s central character and pseudo-narrator, Mark Cohen, is presented as the survivor of the story who sings to his friend Roger that he is “the one of us who survives”: In some ways, Mark represents Larson, although Larson tragically died on the morning of “Rent’s” first off-Broadway preview, at age 36, on Jan. 25, 1996.

Mark Cohen represents a Jewish archetype, situated in the middle of a community but watching from the wings, the paradox of someone who is both on the inside and the outside. Even though he documents an AIDS epidemic in 1996 that is currently declining in the Western world, he provides a commentary that highlights the state of the homeless, the impoverished and the disenfranchised. We were told in the “Rent Live!” trailer that “more than 1 million Americans are living with HIV” and this was a timely reminder. Even though Mark receives telephone calls from his mother, and there is the sense that he could return to his middle-class New York Jewish home at any point, his friends don’t have that option, and he chooses to stay with them.

“Rent” continues to stand the test of time, and Fox’s series of live musicals is a treasure chest for the fans.