On Jan. 26, 1996, previews for a new musical began in a small theater in New York’s East Village. The show’s cast — though it included future stars Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs — was largely unknown; its writer, 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, was a struggling artist like the characters he wrote. As for its subject matter — gentrification, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic — and rock-driven score, both were far from typical for musical theater.
That show, Rent, turned out to be revolutionary. Though it opened off-Broadway under the shadow of tragedy — Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm the night before the first preview — Rent transferred to Broadway within three months, attracting “Rentheads” who slept outside the theater and repeated the show’s “No day but today” mantra as if it were scripture. It stayed open for more than 5,000 shows.
Over two decades later, a new generation will be introduced to the now classic play when, on Jan. 27, Rent Live! debuts on Fox. “It was the first musical to create a movement,” says executive producer Marc Platt, who has also overseen the network’s acclaimed Grease Live! and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. “In terms of the life-or-death stakes, it’s the forefather of reality-based musicals like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen.”
But, more than perhaps any of the live TV musicals produced thus far, Rent’s success depends on capturing the explosive energy of its cast. “The power of this show is in the relationships and how we share these lessons of love, forgiveness, loss, transformation,” says Brandon Victor Dixon, 37, who starred as Judas in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar in April and will play the AIDS-afflicted philosophy professor Tom Collins in Rent Live!
“Rent has always been about the characters’ psychology,” says the show’s original director, Michael Greif, who worked in tandem with Rent Live! director Alex Rudzinski. “Jonathan wrote characters with beautiful insights and self-reflection. To get a group of people who could go there simply and deeply was exciting.”
Casting that group, just like in the 1990s, meant finding actors who could sing and dance, but — more importantly — telegraph a genuine youthful je ne sais quoi. The lead actors are an appropriately diverse group that includes stage-and-screen regulars like Dixon, Jordan Fisher and Vanessa Hudgens; seasoned pop singers such as Tinashe and Mario; and magnetic newcomers like drag queen Valentina.
“Honey, I’m ready for it,” says the RuPaul’s Drag Race star, 27, who plays drag queen Angel, a dancer and drummer battling AIDS. “Angel is iconic. He’s a little beacon of hope when everyone’s really going through it who shows you can live your best life no matter how shitty it might be.”
Valentina, who is simultaneously preparing for the next season of RuPaul’s All Stars, is enjoying the physical demands of playing Angel (“I’m trying to get my body real snatched”), but she emphasizes the serious significance of her role as well. “As a drag queen onstage, you throw your leg up high, the crowd goes crazy. On TV, you have to be believable,” she says. “Putting [a character like Angel] onstage, who was a triple minority [in the ’90s], as a main character — that sent a message. And visibility is important now more than ever.”
Like Valentina, many castmembers first saw Rent not onstage but in its 2010 film incarnation. Singer Mario, 32, who plays landlord Benny (the role Diggs originated), watched the original stage play on YouTube, and the story hit close to home. “As someone from Baltimore, growing up in a lower-income neighborhood with family members who used drugs, seeing gentrification, people close to my family contracting AIDS from drug use — the movie touched me in so many ways.”
Tinashe plays Mimi, the charismatic HIV-positive junkie stripper whose romance with troubled musician Roger (Brennin Hunt) is at Rent‘s center. “So many musicals are period pieces, but it was cool to see this more modern approach,” says Tinashe, 25, who first saw a college production of Rent in middle school. “And it was exciting to see a cast full of minorities — a more accurate representation of the world we live in.”
In a 2010 production of Rent at the Hollywood Bowl, it was Hudgens, 29, who played Mimi, but this time she’ll tackle the charming yet narcissistic lesbian performance artist Maureen (who Menzel portrayed in the original production). “Vocally, emotionally, it’s a tough part,” says Hudgens, who earned raves for her portrayal of Rizzo in Grease Live! in 2016. Adds Greif: “Vanessa really won this.”
More than any one character, the Rent Live! crew is hoping the show as a whole resonates. Though much of what made Rent feel so visceral and immediate when it premiered, from the daily specter of the AIDS epidemic in Manhattan to the needles in Tompkins Square Park, now feels like a distant memory, the team is betting on the fact that the core idea — to find strength in community and “measure your life in love,” as its most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” says — is one that’s timeless. “Jonathan wrote about how he was living through a time of adversity and how the only way to overcome it was to unify, to address it together,” says Platt. “That’s a battle cry for today. That’s the spirit of Rent.”
No Day But Today… To Land A Dream Role
“Y’all know I’m always sipping on some tea I’m frankly dying to spill. What y’all don’t know is that fourteen years ago, my ultimate dream I wanted to see manifested was to be the first Mark Cohen of color. That dream is about to be realized,” he wrote on Twitter.
“They’re definitely big shoes to step into,” he tells Billboard. “You see all this energy and sadness and anger and then Benny pulls up in the middle of the fire and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m that guy! The guy everyone hates at the beginning?’ It’s a way for me to challenge myself.”
BRANDON VICTOR DIXON
“It was on my bucket list of roles, but I’ve checked it off,” he tells Billboard. “I did Rent off-Broadway in 2012. Their [original] Collins got injured. My Angel at the first rehearsal said, ‘I saw you in The Color Purple when I was 14!’ I was prepared for the age difference.”