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'Rent: Live' on Fox hopes mature themes and sexual innuendo will keep the live TV musical alive

If someone had said Carrie Underwood’s acting in “The Sound of Music” would lead to “Rent” five years later, few would have believed it.
Image: RENT cast
The cast of "Rent: Live" attend a press junket at Fox Studio Lot on Jan. 8, 2019 in Century City, California.Emma McIntyre / Getty Images

Editor's note: Due to a last-minute injury to cast member Brennin Hunt during a rehearsal Saturday, Fox announced on Sunday that parts of “Rent: Live” would in fact be pre-taped.

This weekend marks the 23rd anniversary of the seminal 1990s-era musical “Rent,” a Broadway phenomenon set in the shadow of New York City’s AIDS crisis before the waves of gentrification came rolling in. To mark the occasion, Fox is airing “Rent: Live,” the newest entry in the growing pantheon of musicals performed live on TV, a genre which has been a surprisingly successful in this era of ever-shrinking TV audiences.

In this world of audiences drifting away to streaming platforms and DVR, one way to bring in eyeballs is to make programming a live event. Interestingly, as the live musical genre has evolved over the last five years, broadcast channels seem to be betting that the less family-friendly the show, the better.

As the live musical genre has evolved over the last five years, broadcast channels seem to be betting that the less family-friendly the show, the better.

“Rent,” when it first landed in 1996, was a Broadway phenomenon. Not only did it take home Tonys, it even landed a Pulitzer Prize. The musical was groundbreaking for how it handled LGBTQ issues and AIDS. And the legion of “Renthead” fans who stood outside the theater were the forerunners of this decade’s “Hamiltrash.” It also launched the careers of several original cast members, including Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs.

But for Fox, it's also a bit of a strange choice — and not just because of the themes. Some musicals stand the test of time. No one would call “The Sound of Music” dated. “West Side Story” might even be considered more relevant now. But “Rent,” which literally is named for a song where the characters insist “adulting” is akin to selling out, feels pretentiously out of step, especially for a new generation of artists who learn early it’s not just rent that needs to be paid, but student loans.

In place of relevancy, Fox is likely banking on both memories of sentimentality and innuendo to bring audiences in. There’s little that’s been updated, as the costumes make clear. But the cast has been changed out for a younger generation, with stars like Mario, Vanessa Hudgens, Tinashe and Jordan Fisher.

Image: RENT
Idina Menzel, center, and Tracie Thoms, right, in the 2005 film version of "Rent."Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The revival of so-called live television events like “Rent: Live” nearly a century into the existence of television may also seem like a strange reversal, but everything old is new again if you wait long enough. Back when TV first gained popularity in the post-war era, all shows were live, because videotape technology had not been invented yet. (The first pre-taped TV sequence did not air until 1956.)

Early glimpses of a return to the old ways began in 1997, when the hit hospital drama “ER” put on an episode live — and did it twice to boot, for both east and west coast time zones. The ratings at the time were through the roof. But even so, live television airings stayed sporadic. Some series wrote special episodes where the live episode mimicked an event that in real life would air live, such as the presidential debate episode of “The West Wing;” but they were few and far between.

In 2013 that changed when NBC, as part of its Christmas special block of programming, produced “The Sound of Music Live!” With ratings for broadcast already tumbling across the board, Christmas programming specials remain one of the few events audiences still watch in real time. But even so, the show’s 18.6 million Nielsen rating was a shock. NBC rushed to capitalize, following up with “Peter Pan Live!” in 2014 (9.1 million viewers) and “The Wiz Live!” in 2015 (11.5 million viewers.)

By then, Fox had also caught on. Unlike NBC, which had been more interested in casting known celebrities, Fox focused more on Broadway veterans. It also did away with the picture-frame staging style NBC musicals favored to make the production feel more like what you'd see in a theater; Fox's “Grease Live!” looks much more like a movie musical. The choice to cast singers who could act, coupled with the enhanced production values made “Grease” the biggest hit since NBC brought the genre back, with 12.2 million viewers. Still, all these musicals had one thing in common: They were family-friendly outings. Even “Grease,” the most risqué of the batch, was still something the whole family could feel good about gathering around the electronic hearth to watch together.

This began to change later that year, however, when Fox made its second musical, “The Passion,” stealing NBC’s Christmas holiday idea but reorienting it towards a Christian conservative base. Fox followed that up with “The Rocky Horror Show” in October. The former was not shy about showing the death of Jesus (though nowhere near the horror depicted in Mel Gibson’s snuff film “The Passion of The Christ” a decade earlier.) As for the latter, the cult classic has been a naughty teen favorite for generations. Neither hit the heights of “Grease” but both still pulled in respectable numbers; “The Passion” pulling in 6.6 million and Rocky landing not quite 5 million.

Even though the ratings weren’t as high, Fox’s back-to-back shows changed the game. NBC, which had been planning on “The Music Man” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” changed course and instead pushed out “Hairspray Live!” and “Jesus Christ Superstar Live!” — getting in on the Easter action. The next musical, slated for May of this year, is “Hair Live!,” the anti-war musical famous for its full-frontal nudity.

Which brings us back to "Rent: Live." There may not be nudity on par with "Hair!," but the reimagining of “La Bohème” doesn’t shy away from mature issues, with openly queer characters, drug addiction and the menace of AIDS always present in the background. But this time, with Vanessa Hudgens.

In 2013, if someone had said Carrie Underwood’s wooden acting in “The Sound of Music” would lead to “Rent” five years later, few would have believed it. But both NBC and Fox are banking on audiences being savvier and more willing to consider heavier themes in their live musical events. They’re also probably hoping the shock value can make up for the declining notoriety. Nudity or not, nostalgia and former Disney stars only go so far with today’s audiences.