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August 30, 2019

Rent Reinvent

Creatives reflect on the unexpected revamping of a live presentation.

Libby Slate
  • Valentina and cast

  • Director Alex Rudzinski with Jordan Fisher and Brennin Hunt

  • Executive producer Julie Larson

  • Vanessa Hudgens and cast

  • Director Michael Greif and executive producer Marc Platt

  • Costume designer Angela Wendt

Rent, the 1996 Tony-and Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical by Jonathan Larson, reimagines Puccini's opera La Bohème in New York City's East Village, where artists and their friends and lovers deal with hopes and dreams amid the AIDS epidemic.

A new production was scheduled to air live January 27, on Fox, but then Brennin Hunt, who plays singer-songwriter Roger, broke his foot during the dress rehearsal. As there was no understudy, the creative team decided to air the dress rehearsal footage, save for the last act, which was rechoreographed and performed live, with Hunt sitting atop a table.

Some felt the cast was holding back in anticipation of the live event, but executive producer Marc Platt disagrees.

"The implication of 'dress rehearsal' is that it was less than. And that's not how we approach it," says Platt, who won Emmys as a producer on Fox's Grease Live! and NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and is lead producer of Broadway's Wicked.

"We approach it as our opening night, and then the next night, which is the live telecast, is closing night. That was the show we wanted to put on. We loved it, and we were proud of the tape."

Rent was a reunion of sorts. Original Broadway director Michael Greif returned to helm the stage direction, teaming with Alex Rudzinski as the live television director. Original costume designer Angela Wendt and casting director Bernie Telsey were also on board, as was Julie Larson, sister of the show's late creator, who died the morning of the show's first Broadway preview.

In revisiting the material, Greif (who's currently directing Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen), says he emphasized bonding and taking care of friends, in response to today's divisive environment. He also reinvestigated Angel, played by RuPaul's Drag Race alum Valentina, and her feelings about transitioning.

"Back in those days, Angel was referred to as a 'drag queen.' After talking to people and thinking about what the trans community would feel best about, we changed some of that language and added some dialogue for Angel, who felt as if she were becoming someone different in the year we spend with these characters."

Wendt approached the show as a stage musical, but says, "Having closeups allowed me to be more detailed and specific." Many costumes came from the original production, with about 20 percent bought in Los Angeles shops. One major difference: the original cast of eight principals and seven ensemble players blossomed to include eight singers, 14 dancers and 22 musicians.

"We used to have 69 costumes. Now we had 234!" Julie Larson, who served as an executive producer, says she was "thrilled" to be working with Greif, Wendt and Telsey. "They lived and breathed the creation of Rent with my brother. There had already been discussions about possible changes, to shift and clarify things, but [because of Jonathan's death] they never got a chance to do that.

"So this was an opportunity to do some of those things, layered with the interpretations of a lot of creative people, such as [production designer] Jason Sherwood and [choreographer] Sonya Tayeh, and a vibrant young cast.

"It was wonderful to see everyone's new interpretation," she adds, "and yet — to me — have it still be Rent."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 7, 2019

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