When Brandon Victor Dixon was a sophomore at Columbia he had an audition for Rent, then playing on Broadway at the time. To prepare (for the role of Benny, originally played by Taye Diggs), he bought a rush ticket to the show and listened to the cast album. What struck him about the musical were the young characters, who were his own age, singing “vulnerably” about love. “It was one of the most open messages I think about love and the urgency for it and the yearning for it and the need for it in spaces that we don’t often think about,” he recalls. “It exploded all of these ideas within myself about who I could be and how I could express myself emotionally.”
Dixon didn’t land the role, but late doesn’t mean never. On Sunday, Jan. 27, he will star in “Rent: Live,” to be broadcast on Fox at 8 p.m./7 p.m. central. He’s got a bigger part this time: He’ll play Tom Collins, an anarchist and philosophy professor, one of a group of 20-something artists living with HIV in New York City in the ’90s. The show, written by Jonathan Larson, became a sensation in its 1996 Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop—just after Larson’s untimely death due to an aortic aneurysm—and subsequently transferred to Broadway, where it played until 2008. It made theatre history both for its sung-through pop-rock score and for its depiction of LGBTQ characters; a national tour and a film adaptation followed.
“Rent: Live” also marks original director Michael Greif’s return to the material (Dixon says he “pokes fun” at Greif on a daily basis for not casting him 20 years ago). In addition to helming the premiere, Greif also directed an Off-Broadway revival of Rent that ran 2011 to 2012.
When asked why he wanted to revisit the show a third time, Greif cites the opportunity to expose a new generation to Larson’s work. “Over the years, so many people have come up to tell me what the musical meant to them,” he says, “and how it changed and informed who they were, or gave them a sense of belonging or a sense of worthiness. I think if we can reach an enormous viewership, and in someway communicate the tenets of Rent—that there is worthiness and dignity in all humanity, and generosity and forgiveness and learning how to love others in order to receive love yourself—those are all great themes to be able to share with thousands and thousands of viewers.”
The TV broadcast will features actors from different disciplines: Alongside theatre veterans like Dixon (Hamilton) and Keala Settle (Waitress), “Rent: Live” also stars recording artists Tinashe and Jordan Fisher, Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”), and Valentina (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”).
Live musicals broadcasts—which have aired annually since 2013 on NBC, with Fox doing its own broadcasts since 2016—have proven to be more of an art than a science. The creative teams have to figure out how to convey the kinetic energy of a live theatre production, while playing to a camera, without seeming too flat or too broad.
Figuring out the language of the hybrid medium has been a work in progress, and the insertion of a live audience (first done for Fox’s “Grease Live”) seemed to be the key to cracking the code. So similar to “Grease” and last year’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” on NBC (for which Dixon played Judas) there will be a live audience—around 1,500 bodies. There will also be a 23-piece orchestra (the Broadway production only had a five-piece band).
“We have the experience of seeing what was so successful about ‘Superstar,’ and seeing what was so special about ‘Grease,’ and knowing that our show is a highly theatrical show that is also a big rock concert, and the original production was a big rock concert,” says playwright Kristoffer Diaz, hired to adapt the Rent book for the broadcast. “We’re building something that’s in service to both of those things.” And those worried the potency of Larson’s book will be diluted in broadcast, fear not; very little of the original show will be censored, aside from one use of the word “fuck,” which has been excised from the script.
In short, the creative team is not trying to make a movie but leaning into the very theatrical nature of the production. For Dixon, who has worked on two live musical projects, what makes for a successful broadcast is the choice of material, because “not everything translates,” he says. “I think you have to choose something that really works as a live performance, and you have to come from the philosophy of capturing a live performance and sharing that with the television audience. As opposed to trying to take this theatre story and film it and put it on.”
The creators are also treating the project as a new production. Though some costumes are reminiscent of the original Rent (with designer Angela Wendt returning for the Fox version), the stage is now in the round, with the audience arranged around it in different seating locations. Greif says he plans a “fantastic environmentally staged production,” with Alex Rudzinski (“Jesus Christ Superstar Live”) directing camera work while Greif handles the onstage activity.
Some longtime Rent-heads may be surprised by certain directorial choices. “I think the take on ‘Seasons of Love’ is different than what people are used to,” says Dixon, offering no other details.
And while the broadcast will introduce new audiences to the material, Greif says the camera work will allow audiences who have seen the stage show new insights into the characters. “I’m excited about the opportunity with the camera to be intimate,” he explains. “And being able to speak things I’ve never been able to speak onstage with a closeup, or a look or a glance or reaction shot. I’m learning a whole new language in terms of camera access and point of view, and shifting point of view and how fluid that can be. That’s been a wonderful education for me on this project.” In fact, for research the team relied less on the 2005 Rent film than on a 2008 filmed performance of Rent on Broadway.
Will Rent newcomers also relate to the work in the same way, or will it be a period piece about a bygone era? Dixon thinks a story about young people of different races and sexual orientations, living on their own for the first time and finding their own identities and creating a chosen family, will always resonate. And while Rent unapologetically centers LGBTQ characters, and there is more diverse representation in popular culture than when it emerged in the ’90s, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still progress to be made.
“We’ve had a great deal of progress in opening worlds, but we haven’t made a great deal of progress in integrating worlds and creating a greater understanding of this different world,” says Dixon. “I’m excited to share this story so that the many wonderful, talented faces of the LGBTQ community can be on the forefront of people’s television screens at this moment in time.”
For Greif, whose first exposure to theatre was seeing Blythe Danner star in The Seagull on PBS, the hope is that he can give a similar experience to young people who may not be able to afford to go to a live show. These live broadcasts are “democratic,” he says. “As hard as we try to make theatre affordable to different groups in different ways, here’s a way that we have the greatest possible access at the greatest possible accessibility.”
The only thing to do now: Jump over the moon.