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Why Fox's 'Rent Live' Wasn't Entirely Live For Its Viewers



The hit Broadway musical "Rent" made it to the small screen last night on Fox TV.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "Rent" is live, and it starts right now.

CORNISH: The show, originally staged in 1996, is about struggling artists trying to survive in New York's East Village, many living with AIDS. Broadcasting musicals live has become a new format for network TV, and this time, one of the big stars got a big break, just not the kind actors normally hope for.


VANESSA HUDGENS: A visit to the hospital confirmed that Brennin Hunt, our Roger, has broken his foot.

CORNISH: Not a leg, just a foot. The show still went on though not quite as it had been billed. Here to talk more about it as NPR's Glen Weldon. Hey there, Glen.


CORNISH: So as we said, this was supposed to be live. This accident happens. So what exactly went to air last night?

WELDON: Most of what we saw - just about everything was pre-recorded. It was the dress rehearsal from the previous night. The very last part of the show, the big finale, was live.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, 525,000 moments so dear.

WELDON: You saw poor actor Brennin Hunt - that poor kid - with his foot propped up on a table at center stage. They also brought back the original off-Broadway cast to sing "Seasons Of Love," and that was live as well.

CORNISH: Why didn't they have understudies? Help me understand (laughter)...

WELDON: This is...

CORNISH: ...How this works.

WELDON: This is exactly what I thought. That's the question I had until I was corrected by a friend who actually works on Broadway. He told me that you don't train your understudies, generally speaking, until after opening night when all the decisions are made because you're just changing everything at the last minute. So you wait until everything is locked, and then you start training up your understudies. Now, they had a great ensemble, and they could have tapped somebody to take over the role for the night I suppose. But this production was really ambitious and complicated. It was performed in the round, on multiple stages, with multiple levels, with cameras zooming around. And in this audio, you can kind of hear the density of what was happening.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, vocalizing).

WELDON: It's all about the blocking in a situation like that. So if you threw somebody in there - just be like sending them into a meat grinder.

CORNISH: So this essentially I guess dress rehearsal, which is what you all saw - some of the Twitterati was saying that maybe people (laughter) weren't giving it their all. Were the actors holding back?

WELDON: Yeah, that's not how dress rehearsals work, though. This wasn't a tech rehearsal where they do just kind of walk through it. This was a full dress rehearsal with a very, very enthusiastic crowd. And I mean, judge for yourself. This is Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Tom Collins, tearing the roof off the dump with "I'll Cover You." I don't think this guy was holding back.


BRANDON VICTOR DIXON: (As Tom Collins) Oh, lover, I'll cover you, yeah.

WELDON: And the big one at closer, "La Vie Boheme," was as raucous and as fun as it needs to be though they cleaned the lyrics up for TV.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) La vie boheme.

CORNISH: As we said, network TV is turning more and more frequently to this live show extravaganza kind of format. What are the lessons learned here?

WELDON: Lesson one, wear boots with a reinforced ankle just because theater is a contact sport. There were some technical glitches early on and the sound mix - always tricky with these things because there is an audience there. And they love it, and they are loud.


WELDON: But you need that - right? - because when they've done this without an audience - they did "Peter Pan" and "Sound Of Music" - they're done on a big, empty soundstage, and it feels like it. They're just dead. There's no energy. There's no life. You need an audience. That's what theater is.

CORNISH: Finally Glen, can you talk about the choice of the play itself? I mean, it first appeared on Broadway in 1996. It very much kind of captured that moment. I don't know if it still holds up.

WELDON: Well, I love this show. I don't always like it, but I love it because these songs just - they get their hooks in you, and it's just so open and earnest and heartfelt and shaggy and sad. It's basically a puppy, this show. And also you have to remember this was a cultural phenomenon at the time. This was "Hamilton" before "Hamilton" was "Hamilton." And one last thing - I think if you break it down, this show is about making art and making connections as acts of resistance, and I can see why that might still resonate today.

CORNISH: Glen Weldon from the NPR Arts Desk and NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks so much, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.