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How Fox’s Live Version of ‘Rent’ Honors and ‘Enhances’ Jonathan Larson’s Vision

In the more than 20 years since Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” first debuted on Broadway, the conversation of adaptation has often come up: Film director Chris Columbus infamously brought the story to the big screen in 2005, Michael John Warren similarly shot one of the final performances of the original theater run in 2008, and talk about television wasn’t far behind. But in order for Larson’s family to feel ready to bring the project to a new medium, it had to be a combination of “the right timing [and] the right people,” says Julie Larson. Enter prolific producers such as Marc Platt, the show’s original director Michael Greif and the Fox network, and “Rent” is seeing a new life in the form of a live television musical on Jan. 27.

“What I see ‘Rent’ as is a throwback and a leap forward at the same time,” says executive producer Adam Siegel. “That mix is everything — that tension between what has been done and what we can do.”

“Rent” found inspiration in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” but, in Larson’s version, became a modernized, edgier, more rock-style story about young artists living with HIV in the East Village in the early 1990s. Starting as a staged reading in 1993 before moving to Broadway just three years later, the emphasis was on the characters and the story, illuminating themes of love and passion, sexual freedom, identity, art and personal fulfillment.

“‘Rent’ was written by this young man who believed in true love, standing for what you believed in [and] that art was more important than anything else — all of these things that at some point in our lives we all believed too,” Siegel says. “For a young person it ignites that part of you, and for an older person it wakes up that part of you again, and that’s the most fun thing to put into people’s living rooms.”

The production team behind Fox’s version includes a mix of those who worked with Larson on the original version of “Rent,” including Greif and costume designer Angela Wendt; some who have later but still personal connections to the theater run, such as music director Stephen Oremus, who got his start on the 1999 touring production, and production designer Jason Sherwood, who grew up as a fan; and those such as choreographer Sonya Tayeh and live television director Alex Rudzinski, who are new to the story but whose expertise in their craft will help “enhance” both the storytelling and the emotion behind it, says Greif.

The acting ensemble was put together in a similar way — one that was, as Greif points out, akin to the original Broadway company, who came from “a lot of disparate parts of show business” but were “brought together” by the material.

Seasoned theater performer Brandon Victor Dixon (“Hamilton,” “Jesus Christ Superstar Live”) was cast as Tom Collins, while recording artists Tinashe and Mario were cast as Mimi Marquez and Benjamin Coffin III, respectively, and Vanessa Hudgens, who played Mimi in a 2010 Hollywood Bowl production of the show, took on the role of Maureen Johnson.

“Nicole Scherzinger [was Maureen when I was Mimi] and I was blown away by her performance and thinking, ‘That is a hell of a part.’ I wasn’t ready yet, but one day I [wanted] to play Maureen, and that day has arrived,” Hudgens says.

Kiersey Clemons (“Hearts Beat Loud”) is Joanne Jefferson; Jordan Fisher (“Grease: Live”) is Mark Cohen; Brennin Hunt (“Nashville”) is Roger Davis and Valentina (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) is Angel Dumott Schunard.

“We learned the music the first couple of days and then at the end of the week we read through it. The thing that came through most clearly was everybody’s earnest desire to make it as honest as possible, their desire to be here, to make it real, to live through it, to illuminate it. And that’s what you really want — that’s what this piece requires,” Dixon says.

Everyone involved stresses that keeping the spirit of the original show was paramount, although they knew they had to up the ante to fully take advantage of the playground the visual medium of television provides.

Similar to Fox’s “Grease: Live” and NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live,” “Rent” will feature an immersive audience element to the production, with room for approximately 1500 bodies in bleachers and mosh pits spread all around the 360-degree stage.

“The energy is going to be so kinetic because of what ‘Rent’ is that you can’t help but feel it deep within your bones. We’re going to feel it and feed off of them and it’s going to be a beautiful connection,” says Hudgens.

And Rudzinski wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think just presenting it in kind of a conservative, formal, PBS-style proscenium presentation doesn’t do the material particular justice in the live form,” he says. His goal, therefore, is to bring “a bit of Broadway theatricality” as well as a cinematic quality that creates a “presentation that is fresh and intimate.”

The production is taking place solely indoors — on Fox Studios’ Stage 16 — with Sherwood building the set out of primarily recycled materials, such as “large amounts of scaffolding” and “reclaimed windows,” to add a “whole new layer of texture and dimension,” he says. Key set pieces such as Roger and Mark’s loft and the space where Maureen puts on her one-woman performance art piece on one side of the soundstage, while the Life Cafe is on the other side.

“The experience in the theater was really oral. Everything that was done actually promoted the sound and the oral nature of it. I’m proud of what it did [but] now I have the opportunity to stage this in a way we’ve never been able to stage this before,” Greif says.

Greif notes that “I’ll Cover You,” the quintessential love song between Collins and Angel, has been reimagined to take advantage of the different space; Sherwood shares that “Out Tonight” and “Over The Moon” are “reconceived and really exciting,” and Rudzinski adds that many of the “really strong, memorable, well-known entrances in the show,” such as seeing Mimi and Angel for the first time, will be shot in wide to include the audience’s point of view.

But it’s not about increasing the scale for the sake of it, they say. In some cases they are pulling back, including cutting one of the voicemails and “Seasons of Love B,” according to the live recording track list. And for Greif, getting a chance to use close-ups on actors’ emotional faces as well as the texture and set design detail has proven to be a wonderful dichotomy with some of the larger scale numbers.

“I was really excited to be able to reinvestigate [and] restage a whole bunch of things,” he says. “Once there’s a comfort and the recognition that the emotional terrain is going to be what the emotional terrain is, everything else pretty much follows.”

Sherwood adds that he likens this version of “Rent” to Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” Stadium Tour concert that was released on Netflix at the top of the year in “how dynamic it is and how we’re able to be close with her but you understand the scale of the environment [and] the scale of the story.”

Rather than seat the 24-piece band (the largest in “Rent” history, Oremus notes) on stage, as the Broadway and touring productions always would, Fox’s version has them situated in the catwalks.

“It’s…enhancing to help match that epicness with a larger rhythm section and a whole strong complement,” Oremus says of the band’s larger presence. “It’s still going to feel like ‘Rent’ but it’s going to feel like ‘Rent’ on steroids.”

Unlike the 2005 film, Fox’s version of “Rent” will not include any original songs, as Oremus says his job is to “really honor Jonathan’s work and honor all of the great musical minds that put it on for the first time with him.” However, he admits that there will be a few things that feel new, perhaps most notably tweaks to lyrics. Greif shares that the reference to the Christmas tree in “You Okay Honey?” has been altered slightly, due in great part to the size, scope and placement of that set piece as compared to where Collins and Angel will perform that number.

In other cases, though, Larson’s original lyrics dictated what Sherwood and the art department could design. In “Happy New Year,” for example, Roger references that the door to their building is covered with “bolted plywood padlocked with a chain.” Lyrics, and in some cases full songs (such as “Tango Maureen”), also set a strong guideline for Tayeh’s choreography. But she, too, wasn’t afraid to put her own stamp on it.

“What I think is iconic I held onto, and what I wanted to pay homage to I did, and then from there we rebuilt,” she says. “It’s timeless for a reason, it’s iconic for a reason, what are those reasons to me as a mover? [It was] holding onto those and hinting at those and saying thank you to those.”

Tayeh, who has a background with Fox’s competition series “So You Think You Can Dance?,” brought in quite a number of alumni from that show to fill out the dance ensemble with “Rent,” in addition to Season 15 winner Hannahlei Cabinella, who earned a spot in the live musical as part of her prize. Tayeh brought her company up to 14 performers, talking to them as well as the acting ensemble about how the baseline is the characters’ desire for “freedom.”

“Some of them have never done this before, and it’s incredible to see. All of that newness in energy you don’t want to close off — you want to welcome — because it’s just about asking who they are. So, there’s been a lot of talking about what you want out of life and how does it feel to be censored and what do you do and how do you push through disease and how do you find the light inside of all of that darkness?” she says. “Any time you get back to an emotional drive, that’s when it’s natural, and that’s what I want to keep because it’s not polished and formal; it’s f—ing real and dark and beautiful and scary and amazing.”

For performers such as Valentina, who will get her first shot “to be taken seriously as a singer” with “Rent,” the biggest challenges of the production come from nailing the technique, as well as the emotion. She is relying on studying a friend of hers who she believes shares similarities with her character to dive into the mindset of someone who feels fulfilled “always thinking about other people before he thinks of himself.”

Hunt shares he is mixing pieces of phrasing from Adam Pascal, who originated the role of Roger, with “pieces” of acting choices from Will Chase, Hunt’s former “Nashville” costar and the first Roger he ever saw perform the role, as well as his own unique experience of being a real-life “struggling” singer-songwriter.

His nerves come from making sure he is able to successfully light the match during all of the lighting cues in “Light My Candle” — “We’re taping two matches together to cheat a little bit,” he reveals — as well as to remember he is playing to an audience watching on screens at home, in addition to the live crowd mere feet in front of him. “The challenge for me as an actor and a performer is the balance and not to be too over the top,” he says.

But even for those who have participated in similar productions, nothing feels like old hat.

“The technical aspect is always going to be a real challenge,” Fisher admits. “It’s not black box in that we’re just doing it all on one stage in front of you. … We have best boys and lighting set up in about six different places on the stage, we have transmitter units for the audio team and to be able to receive in our in-ears and microphones for a very, very wide range. But the most fun part for me has been doing it with these people.”

Large scale production value aside, though, Oremus remembers just how “blown away” the audience was at seeing “Rent” in the ’90s and, especially for LGBTQ youth, finally feeling like they were represented in a piece of media — and in a positive way, at that. “We can’t minimize that. It’s a crucial part of this story and a crucial part of the time,” he says.

Sharing that history and honoring those stories and characters for a new generation is at the heart of what the team behind Fox’s “Rent” are doing.

“These messages need to be heard now more than ever, I think. And it felt like now was the time to do it for a new generation,” Larson says.

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