The roadblocks that Rent: Live unexpectedly faced came fast and furious leading up to its Jan. 27 broadcast. First, key cast member Brennin Hunt suffered an ankle injury the day before, causing the production to rely on pre-recorded footage for the majority of its airtime. FOX also cut out for some viewers before and during the beginning of the show, and although the connection soon returned, fans quickly found another issue. Rent: Live was censored a lot, and hardcore Rentheads are not here for the lyric changes.
When it first hit Broadway in 1996, Rent's diverse characters and rebellious lyrics caused a stir in the theater scene. Although the story might not feel as risqué as it once did, everyone still has that angsty teenager inside them who delighted in blasting the music at top volume and savoring its curses and suggestive dialogue. However, when a major network is adapting the show for prime time on a Sunday night, censored lyrics are inevitable, and such was the case with some of the more controversial lyrics from Rent's original musical numbers.
Ahead of Rent's particularly gritty Act One finale "La Vie Boheme," live-tweeting fans already disappointed with FOX's shaky connection and the show suddenly being pre-recorded were quick to notice some of the tweaked lyrics, most of which avoided harsh language. Some viewers wondered why networks would produce live versions of raunchier stage musicals that lose a certain spirit when dealing with TV censorship. Think of it as those Sex and the City reruns on E! or TBS — is it really worth it if the most entertaining bits are limited?
While playwright Kristoffer Diaz, who adapted the Rent book for its live format, previously promised that very little of the final product would be censored, the spitfire "La Vie Boheme" that sings the praises of marijuana, ecstasy, masturbation, and more seemed destined for a Kidz Bop-esque cleanup. However, when the popular number finished, a good chunk of the risqué references were still included, but the changes, such as the line "to leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo" edited to mention latex instead of dildos, were enough to upset fans.
Because of the original show's dedication to portraying the reality of AIDS and the New York art scene of the late 20th century, seeing some of these rebellious elements disappear was definitely upsetting to longtime fans. Of course, on the other hand, part of the reason why live TV musicals have grown in popularity is to provide those with little theater access a Broadway-worthy performance. In those cases, more adult shows have to adhere to TV network rules, as painful as these changes may be for original fans.
Cast member Brandon Victor Dixon, who appears in Rent: Live as Tom Collins and who delivered an acclaimed performance in last year's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, spoke about this adaptation from stage to TV, telling American Theatre:
Not everything translates. 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 theater story and film it and put it on.
The fleeting edits and censored lyrics continued throughout the broadcast, and as unsettling as some of them may have been, here's to FOX for bringing Rent to new and old theater nerds everywhere.