Angel Dumott Schunard’s swan song in “Rent” is the double-entendre infused “Contact,” a high-concept number that features the whole company. The song begins seemingly just as a representation of the various couples’ sex lives but soon turns into a heartbreaking solo as Angel enters a fever dream and then dies of complications from HIV/AIDS. Jonathan Larson originally conceived the number to sound as a club track, which meant relying on pre-recorded music, rather than the live orchestra, during the stage productions. Since the goal was to honor but also enhance that formative vision, the team behind Fox’s live broadcast staging took the musical’s lead when it came to utilizing a single, central set piece. But to better focus audience attention on Angel’s state of mind, the number opens on a close-up of her face, punctuating the emotional dichotomy of her desire to live with her dark fate.
“The notes that Valentina’s singing are generally the notes that Jonathan wrote, but I was able to shape it so Valentina wasn’t trying to imitate runs. It was about trying to find the sweet spot about what felt unique and organic. Harvey Mason Jr. and I produced a track that we used for the broadcast, and then I have our live guitarist playing a guitar solo over it for that big emotional moment. Other than the live guitar, it’s all synths and electronic percussion. What I think was particularly wonderful about this particular process was we stripped it down to the bare, bare bones. Harvey and I were then able to create the track based on the [choreography].”
“Knowing that the characters were going to be on top of a bed, with the sheet above them, brought us quickly to the obvious conclusion that the bed should be internally lit. The choreography of this scene seemed to me to demand a frontal perspective for the most part, and that is how I designed the lighting. I used a low, powerful floor light to create the silhouette without ‘blowing out’ the lens. Toward the end of the scene, though, the Steadicam moved 360 degrees around the beds, which meant that in order to maintain the drama, I had to create a musically-timed cue that moved everything around to come from the opposite direction, and then back again as the camera carried on around to the front again.”
“In the original, Angel comes out in the middle to the end, and I wanted to wrap this entire piece around her; I wanted her to dance her way out of this world. The physical idea of holding on and grasping and not being able to connect, that’s how the movement was created. It was this constant rebound effect, and everyone in the piece is a representation of Angel’s life. In the beginning, we filled it up with tons and tons of smoke, and I wanted the smoke to wrap around the bed and wrap around Angel, so we had a lot of physicality of circular sliding. We worked with undulation, which then helped carry these shadowy silhouettes around, like many angels and ghosts. And I wanted all of the ensemble in it because they’re all incredible and Angel had a huge community — she loved everyone, she respected everyone, so her world should be immersed and represent the desire to hold on, to grasp for connection when loss is approaching, when the end is near.”
Live Television Director
“By starting on the extreme closeup, compositionally forcing the viewer to focus on the intensity of her struggles, you see her writhing around, and then suddenly there’s a snap and a lighting change and we go into a very different, stylized vibe. What we had in our minds was creating this canvas whereby the dancers could work in choreography with our cameras to capture the danger of sexuality and sensuality, the risk, all of these themes that have been prevalent up until that point, and talk about ultimately Angel passing. And so the beginning of the sequence is a little more cutty, and you get to see several vignettes of the ensemble to see intensity and passion within the scene. And as Angel’s story becomes more prevalent within the scene we pulled back from that and designed a one-shot that lives in the fluidity of the world and we get to focus on her story, with her falling back onto the bed and opening up to the light.”
“Primarily we wanted to give the audience an indication and an understanding that we were in an abstracted version of the reality that we had established during the previous part of the show, and we really wanted to relate it to the moment that had just come before in ‘Without You’ with the three beds. The bed was a really interesting piece because we have the two sort of home-style beds on the side that were Roger and Mimi’s and Joanne and Maureen’s, and the center bed mimics the shape of a hospital bed. We built it custom because the whole thing was a giant lightbox, so that when our protagonist went under the sheet the whole thing was able to glow and have this ghostly abstraction.”