I attended Rent Live this past Sunday, January 27th, otherwise known as Rent that wasn’t actually live due to Brennin Hunt’s injury. In case you didn’t hear, Brennin Hunt had injured his foot during Saturday’s dress rehearsal and was unable to perform the final 15 minutes of the show so that portion was not filmed for the dress rehearsal audience on Saturday. All of this information was unknown to us, ticket holders to the Sunday live performance, until we stepped foot in the building. Let me provide a little bit of background.
On-Camera Audiences is the ticketing service used for a variety of television shows in the Los Angeles area that require live audiences. They were responsible for Rent Live’s schedule as far as providing an audience for run-throughs, the final dress rehearsal on Saturday, and finally, the live performance on Sunday. These were the rules provided to us in the emails:
Also, due to the nature of the taping and the set, anyone participating must possess the physical ability to stand for extended periods, walk up and down stairs as needed, follow verbal and visual instructions without assistance, and be in general good health without any conditions that would restrict or limit any of the above activities. By presenting yourselves for check-in, you and your everyone in your party certify that you meet these requirements.
Please be aware that RENT Live will be filmed live on a large set. Some seats may have slightly obstructed views for some scenes, but there will be monitors so youll still be able to see the show. Also, some tickets may be in a standing room only pit, so we ask that you PLEASE wear comfortable shoes.
This taping will last until 8 PM and you MUST stay for the duration of the taping. The dress code is strictly enforced, so please read the dress code portion of this ticket! If you have a cell phone it MUST be powered down.
We recommend eating beforehand. You may also bring a small snack (protein bar, etc.) in your pocket to eat while in line before entering the studio.
Congratulations on successfully receiving tickets to attend RENT Live this Sunday, January 27th. We are asking all audience members to dress in hip, casual clothing. Jeans and a nice top/shirt works great! Please do not wear any solid white clothing, bright colors, or busy patterns. Remember you will be on a working set, so please wear comfortable, closed toed shoes.
I grabbed a ticket at the beginning of the week, but debated about whether or not I really wanted to go. There were a few other things I wanted to do that day, but ultimately, I wanted to see the show. Rent is one of my favorite musicals and being part of that experience is part of what it means to be a Renthead and a theater fan.
I arrived at Fox Studios at 1:20, parked, walked upstairs for my green wristband, and was shuffled into the waiting area with about another 100 people. We were underneath the sun on the concrete parking lot. I wore my traditional camera attire — all black. It was an especially hot day in Los Angeles after such a nice, cool week. We were told to arrive by 2:30. Everyone knows if you do one of these things, you have to come earlier than the arrival time. They always give an excess of tickets and there’s a high chance you won’t make it into the studio if you don’t arrive after the arrival time. I truly expected to be in the studio or at least given something to do for a few hours. The taping wasn’t until 5 and we were only going to be brought in at 4, at the earliest. But I was wrong. We really were only let it at 4:15-4:30 and the last group to be brought in. As for what happened during those few hours we were in the sun, they had a limited amount of bathrooms for us to use (portable toilet style) in the parking lot, passed around a box of chips, a bag of jolly ranches, and occasionally played a game of Rent trivia. I think a better recommendation for these shows would be to bring yourself a full portable meal before you enter the studio because you won’t be able to eat or drink inside. As for the strict dress code and bag code? Not enforced for this particular show. I don’t know if the circumstances would’ve been different if the show had gone differently.
There were numbers on it, but the numbers didn’t really mean anything.
After shuffling off together in a large group, we were directed toward the sound stage, and were seated by a member of the crew. The multicolored bands in our group were all going to be seated. There were other colors that were directed toward standing pit, standing room, and other positions around the stage. I think most green wristbands were seated along the sides with a great view of the entire soundstage. Before the entering the studio in the holding area, I’d read that Brennin Hunt had had an injury, but in no way did it sound completely dire. It sounded like it was going to be difficult to perform, but not impossible. It wasn’t until we entered the studio did the gravity of the situation really became more of a reality. Producer, Marc Platt, came to the stage to announce that the show was going to proceed but in an extremely limited capacity. He said we wouldn’t be going live until “Act 10.” Now, I don’t know what that means or how they segregated the various segments for this show. In theater, there are usually only two acts, so I didn’t know exactly how long that would be. Well, we soon found out.
Instead of getting a full, live performance, we would be getting to watch what the east coast would be seeing, which was the live dress rehearsal from the day before. And there I sat, immediately hopping on my phone to see what the internet was saying. I hopped on broadway.com’s twitter to report what I was seeing live in front of me, which was a tiny screen above me so I could watch what we potentially would’ve seen performed in front of us, but didn’t. During the entire opening number, one of the most exciting songs in the show “Rent,” I thought, “Wow, that looks like fun.” Needless to say, I was upset, and I was disappointed. It was an incredible amount of time spent in excitement, in preparation for this, and it wasn’t happening.
But more importantly, I was incredibly disappointed for the performers and the crew who had spent a year in preparation for this only for it to go completely wrong. It made me wonder, why is there not a more concrete contingency plan prepared for this? Sure, that’s why they have the dress rehearsal footage, but that’s not what’s advertised. The network spends a lot of money on advertising to broadcast a complete live show on a specific date that people should tune in to see. In this case, it didn’t happen.
The cast came out before what was to be our broadcast and walked around the whole set to cheering and shouts. Fan favorites were very clearly Jordan Fisher and Valentina, two performers I’m not particularly familiar with. The audience skewed pretty young and I think that that was due in part to these performers as well as Vanessa Hudgens. Me? I was going for my first Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, Filipino-American performer J. Elaine Marcos, and my tour Roger (and from the Hair revival cast), Bryce Ryness.
Our audience coordinator told us this was a rare occasion where we got to take out our phones and tweet the action. Shoot photos, shoot video, do whatever we want as means of compensation and to give this the viral moment it was heading towards. Since I didn’t expect to be using my phone during a live broadcast, I didn’t bring my external charger…damn it. Regardless, I filmed what I could and sent it out to the interwebs. In a normal theater setting, cellphones are an absolute no-no. No cellphones in the theater. But this wasn’t being aired so we were allowed this freedom for a couple of hours. Other than that moment, we weren’t given many instructions from the audience coordinator other than to put our phones away for the final act. We even had battery operated candles hidden underneath our seats and the only reason I knew to take it out during “Light My Candle” is because I saw audience members on the opposite side reaching underneath their seats for them. Did our section miss that announcement?
The cast did what they could with their limited resources. They performed a few songs live for us that weren’t in sync with the televised performance. The band did their best to keep up. The cast performed some of their choreographed moves. For example, Mark and Joanne did dance the Tango Maureen while ensemble members went into their places and danced with them. We could look at the screens above and see how it was supposed to look and watch it in front of us in this new, spontaneous version. We were still following the commercial breaks so during breaks, they’d set up on a different part of the stage with a new song, for example, the support group meeting. Another commercial break, they’d set up on another part of the stage and perform Will I. During one of the most fun parts of the evening, they tried to do complete staging for La Vie Boheme. The small section I was in started singing every word and I was right there singing along with them. We didn’t have to worry about cameras capturing our own vocal arrangement, no cameras were rolling.
Later, some of these staged performances, Fox would tweet out as the “concert versions” of performances. From what I read in the comments, this is the version that people wanted to see instead. And I can’t blame them! That’s the beauty of live theater, right? I think this is where we have a disconnect between a television audience and a theater audience. Television, television producers of musicals think that we need to have big, flashy, and staged for it to be a success. Rent had one of the lowest ratings of musicals aired on television in modern day. 3 million is nothing to sneeze at, but didn’t achieve the numbers, I imagine, Fox wanted it to achieve, after all, it really was a cultural success in the 90s. Big networks are still trying to look for the format that works. In my opinion, the audience format doesn’t always work. It might be a dated opinion, but I grew up in the era of staged musicals for television and PBS filmed Broadway performances. Those are the productions that first drew my interest. I don’t know how successful the modern television musical is in drawing different audiences to the stage.
So I have a couple of suggestions going forward for the modern television musical.
☻ Understudies, replacements are necessary. It was surprising to some that there was no one there to replace Brennin Hunt. I wasn’t surprised. They advertise these known names to bring in a watching audience. The understanding is that if that person isn’t there, maybe someone won’t tune in to watch. It’s like the theater, right? If the advertised star isn’t at the performance and if their name is above the marquee, you have the opportunity to exchange your ticket for another date or see their understudy. But not possible on a One Night Only performance. That person is out, they’re out, and it’s unfortunate for him, but there should be understudies available to replace an injured cast member. That’s how it works in the theater and though television is a visual, different medium with a wider audience, it seems like the responsible thing to do. No disrespect to Brennin Hunt. If he could’ve performed, I know he would’ve, and he certainly tried in that last 15 minutes.
☻ No live audiences. I was against live audiences even before I became an audience member. I was curious about this one. I’m a Renthead. The opportunity to see the Original Broadcast Cast of Rent right there in front of me was extremely appealing. I had a ticket. So I went. But I just don’t think it works. According to someone who attended dress rehearsal, that audience was told to “go nuts” during the performances. While the cheering heard over the performances was scattered throughout the show, it was even more noticeable during “What You Own” when cheering was overshadowing the performers, important lines disappearing within the screams. I don’t know if our crowd would’ve been different. I hope so! It’s a difficult balance. I absolutely want theater to be shown all across American to expose it to the masses. I just don’t know if there is a correct format or could we just offer filmed live performances a la PBS and hope it sticks to a nationwide audience. That would be my hope.
☻ Let theater be theater. I think it’s an error to underestimate television audiences. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes simple is beautiful and raw energy is what inspires and energizes. Mistakes, injuries, those things happen in real life, in the theater, in any kind of entertainment medium, and the show usually goes on. A staged concert performance of Rent where America saw what was happening in real time the way we saw it happening? That would be a viral moment. The cast gave so much energy to us in the studio, really giving us the performance they saved for that special night. And they should’ve had the opportunity to show it. It was emotional and it wasn’t perfect. But you know what? That would’ve been okay. Maybe it wouldn’t have been for someone waiting for explosions and big flashing lights, but then, maybe this show isn’t for them. It isn’t that in the stage production either. It’s exciting and thrilling without dizzying camera angles and cheering and shouting. There’s a reason that people fell in love with Rent in the first place and having a concert experience instead of full blown production would’ve made a great learning experience and talking point come Monday morning.
I love Rent. I’ve loved it since I was 19 years old and memorized every word of that cast recording. It’s sad and poignant and nostalgic and upsetting and warm and loving and it isn’t perfect. It couldn’t reach that stage. It was unfinished. But it’s been embraced by audiences the world over for its imperfections and the themes people can relate to. I really wanted everyone to love this and I hope people still did. I think it’s because I love this show and musical theater in general that I’m trying to be constructive in criticism. I can still love something and think it can be improved upon. I was upset and disappointed that I spent hours waiting for something that didn’t come to fruition. But no one was more upset than that cast and crew and you could feel that energy in the room and in their tears and in their wanting to give us some kind of show. And they did the best they could. I wouldn’t have minded seeing that version on television.
Here is video of what I was able to capture from my perspective as an audience member.
As for the production itself, what I saw of it, it wasn’t my favorite staged production. That goes to Rent Live on Broadway filmed with the last cast to perform the show at the Nederlander. The line changes were necessary for television but lyrics were muddled. All the individual character spoken text during La Vie Boheme seemed clunky. They cut out Collin’s “indeed” when we met Angel! ICONIC. And I was very, very much looking forward to hearing the line about Compulsive Bowlers before “What You Own” which would’ve been a deep, deep cut and personal fan shoutout to the Rentheads who visited the legendary message board in the 90s. (Can we bring it back?) But the line was removed without a second thought. Insert crying emojis here. I also just really missed the staging from, well, the stage. They didn’t really cut away from Mimi much during “Without You” and there was a lot happening on those three other beds (former tables). But these are Renthead quibbles in the grand scheme of things. I hope everyone found a moment they loved and we can all agree nothing really beat seeing the entire OBC step out on stage for a final “Seasons of Love.”