On Sunday night, Fox Television will broadcast its much-anticipated production of “Rent” as the latest in its series of “live musical theatre” events.
The groundbreaking, Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is a re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” and set in New York City’s gritty East Village. “Rent” tells the unforgettable story of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams during a time of great social and political turmoil. Winner of four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, writer/composer Jonathan Larson’s tour de force continues to offer an inspiring message of hope and friendship.
Larson never lived to see the success his creation would achieve – he died suddenly of a rare heart condition on the eve of “Rent’s” Off-Broadway opening in 1996.
For the Fox live broadcast, executive producer Marc Platt wanted to ensure a strong connection to Larson’s vision, and to that end he brought in several members of the original production staff. Returning for the television adaptation are Emmy Award-winning casting director Bernie Telsey, costume designer Angela Wendt, and original director Michael Greif.
Greif, who also directed the original Broadway productions of “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hanson,” spoke to the Los Angeles Blade about the show’s popularity – then and now.
“I think Jonathan was influenced by a number of wonderful shows,” he explains, “like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Hair,’ and ‘Runaways’ – which all managed to bring contemporary music into the musical theatre form. But as we were moving through the 80s and into the 90s, there seemed to be fewer musicals that were about contemporary issues or using contemporary pop sound.”
“I think ‘Rent’ made such a great impression because its music is so terrific,” he continues. “Also, I think we are tremendously moved by seeing how, in the face of a great crisis, a community can come together to battle and withstand the chaos and calamity surrounding them.”
It’s messaging like this that Greif says makes the show as relevant as ever in today’s cultural climate.
“I think it’s amazing,” he says, “that one of the very first lyrics asks how do you document real life at a time when fact and fiction are being so constantly blurred? I think that’s never been more relevant than today, and I think it’s never been more important to honor and dignify parts of our community that live outside of the mainstream and to treat people with respect and consideration, in spite of their differences.”
At the time of its opening, “Rent” crossed boundaries with its inclusion of characters dealing with AIDS and gender non-conformity. Greif says the new production honors that.
“In terms of the subject of AIDS,” he says, “we’ve chosen to set the musical as it has always been, in the early 90s, so that the character’s response can remain true to the ramifications of a positive HIV diagnosis at that time, when we all viewed that diagnosis as a death sentence.”
With the increase in transgender awareness that has taken place since the show originated, Greif says the remount does offer some opportunities to expand those aspects of the script in its approach to the character of Angel, a drag queen.
“In terms of the transgender experience,” he says, “we have the opportunity to speak to and clarify Angel’s path more than we have in the past. Mark’s pointing to a discussion of Angel’s preferred pronouns has led the creative team to believe this would be something Jonathan would want to continue to explore.”
In the Fox production, Angel is portrayed by Valentina, best known for her time on the popular reality series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The Blade was invited to the “Seasons of Love” fan music video event at YouTube space, where Valentina talked about her role during a Q&A with the cast and producers.
“As Angel, I have many, many costume changes, gender changes, makeup changes, health changes. And so I go on this journey of just transforming throughout the show,” she enthused.
“And it’s been very exciting to work with the wardrobe team and the makeup team to develop an Angel that is relevant and appeared accurate to the ’90s — but with the budget from FOX!”
Because it’s a live production, being able to change costumes quickly can be a challenge.
“We’re definitely keeping things like the zebra tights and just keeping the heart in Angel’s costumes,” she said. “And the quick changes are definitely a lot of pressure. Just imagine going from boy Angel, drummer on the street, to full-on drag woman-a woman-a woman-a, ‘Dora the Explorer’ wig, in four minutes. It’s like, a commercial break and one song and ‘Mary, pull the zipper real quick, girl!’” she quipped.
“It’s also figuring out, is it going to be zipper? Is it going to be snaps? Cause we gotta have it down to a science,” she acknowledged.
Live production or not, Greif says he and television director Alex Rudzinski (“Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” “Grease: Live,” “Dancing with the Stars”) have worked to take advantage of the broadcast format.
“I had a lot of exciting conversations with our producer, Marc Platt, and with our choreographer, Sonya Tayeh, and set designer, Jason Sherwood,” he explains, “about how to retain the concert quality the show enjoys onstage, but also on how to take full advantage of the intimacy that the camera can afford.”
“And the resources we have,” he adds, “create the opportunity for our characters to visit some locations that have never been possible on stage before.”
For Greif, though, what ultimately matters is the message.
“I’d like for viewers, especially those who are not familiar with ‘Rent,’ and particularly young people who are feeling alienated or marginalized or unlovable, to see themselves in the characters,” he says. “To recognize how each one of these characters finds worthiness, and ways in which they can feel seen and appreciated and valued.”
“And maybe,” he concludes, “they can find some hope that they, too, can find their community and their chosen family.”
In addition to Valentina, the “Rent” Live Broadcast stars Kiersey Clemons, Brandon Victor Dixon, Jordan Fisher, Vanessa Hudgens, Brennin Hunt, Mario, Tinashe, and Keala Settle. It airs on Fox at 8pm on Sunday, January 27.
This article also includes contributions by Susan Hornik.