RENT: A Second Soundtrack By Peter Filichia
Twenty-three to five.
This is not the score of the most recent Yankees’ win or the Mets’ most recent loss in spring training.
The former is the number of musicians you’ll hear on the new RENT: LIVE recording – eighteen more than you heard on the original cast album.
A mere quintet played for all of RENT’s twelve-year-plus Broadway run. It got by with nothing more than one musician each on the expected bass, drums, guitars and keyboards as well as one other who handled the piano, synthesizer, organ, acoustic and electric guitars.
On the newly released album of RENT: LIVE, instead of a band, you’ll hear a genuine orchestra. In addition to all of the above instruments, it sports percussion as well as violins, a viola and a cello.
Adding all those musicians automatically meant new orchestrations, and the production didn’t scrimp. The estimable Stephen Oremus was hired to write the charts. He’s been nominated for two Tonys, which may not sound like all that much – but both those nominations resulted in wins: THE BOOK OF MORMON, which he co-orchestrated in 2011 and KINKY BOOTS, which he did all on his own in 2013.
For those who felt that five was a fine number of musicians, be apprised that Oremus took his cue from Jonathan Larson’s notes. The auteur of RENT’S book, music and lyrics specified on his first demo recordings that he saw the show accompanied by a “rock band with full orchestra.”
Well, that was a lot to ask from The New York Theatre Workshop where RENT originated twenty-three years ago. A 199-seat theater doesn’t have the income to support a full orchestra. But only eighty-
two days after RENT’s triumphant off-Broadway opening, the show was on Broadway without a single additional musician.
And by then and the next dozen years, it could have afforded more.
Sad to say, Larson wasn’t there to complain. In one of the most famous and dramatic real-life stories in Broadway history, he died of an aortic dissection ten days shy of his 36th birthday: January 25, 1996, the actual day that RENT would start previews.
More sobering is that in 1990, Larson wrote a musical that included a song called “30/90” that told of the agony of turning thirty. Most anyone who’s hit that mark does feel a little queasy about getting so “old”; in Larson’s case, the situation was worse, for his life was essentially five-sixths over.
(You can hear the song on the cast album of tick, tick, BOOM! the 2001 version of Larson’s musical.)
Sometimes original cast albums sweeten the number of musicians on a recording; both DAMES AT SEA and ASSASSINS brought in more musicians to create a better sound for home and car listening.
RENT did not.
Scott Farthing, Vice President of Masterworks Broadway, points out that “This version sounds more like a rock record than the original. It has fierce guitar work in the title song, ‘Tango: Maureen’ and ‘Out Tonight.’ ‘One Song Glory’ and ‘Another Day’ now have more emotional sweep with the addition of strings.”
You bet. The fuller sound on “Santa Fe” and “I Should Tell You” in the midst of “La Vie Boheme” is palpable, too.
Now let’s talk about that broadcast. The year is young, but even when 2020 arrives, RENT: LIVE may still well be 2019’s most talked-about TV offering.
Unless you’ve been living in Brigadoon, you’ve heard about “The Accident.”
RENT was to be broadcast live on Sunday, Jan. 27th. It had an exciting cast with performers so young that most were barely alive when RENT took Broadway by superstorm in 1996.
Selected as Mimi by directors Michael Greif and Alex Rudzinski was Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe. During the last decade, she decided to go solely by her first name. (As we hear in FIORELLO!: “Nobody likes a candidate whose name they can’t spell.”)
Tinashe had recorded many much-acclaimed albums, had recurring roles in two TV series and had been DANCING WITH THE STARS long before she danced on RENT. As a result, many would recognize her with or without the handcuffs.
Another DANCING WITH THE STARS grad is Jordan Fisher, chosen to play Mark. Of the principals, he was the most experienced in musicals, for two years ago he’d played Doody in the TV GREASE; since then, he’s played Hamilton on Broadway. (Okay – Philip Hamilton, but still …)
No less than Vanessa Hudgens was to portray Maureen Johnson, Joanne’s new girlfriend. Yes, she’s all grown up from her HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL days when she was the demure Gabriella Montez.
And then there was Brennin Hunt, set to play Roger until there was literally a break in the action. Do I get the prize for being the millionth person to cite the irony of “break a leg” vs. “break a foot” – which Hunt did prior to the live broadcast?
The decision was then made to run a tape of the dress rehearsal for most of the show and then finish with a live segment with Hunt in a wheelchair. That sparked outrage from some – which frankly surprised and dismayed me.
Why did viewers center on the fact they weren’t seeing the show live and were “just” getting a dress rehearsal? Why wasn’t their first concern for Hunt and not themselves?
Until RENT: LIVE, Hunt had done five episodes of one TV series, was once a guest on another series – and that was pretty much it for television. Remember, Roger was the role that garnered Adam Pascal a Tony nomination and jump-started a career that has included seven subsequent Broadway musicals. Perhaps Hunt could have enjoyed the same happy fate and received an Emmy nomination had he not literally taken a fall.
Whether the powers-that-be made the right or wrong decision to show RENT: LIVE (which did indeed happen with the studio audience and Hunt in a wheelchair) or run the dress rehearsal tape, we can still enjoy what the CD booklet calls “the original soundtrack of the Fox Live Television Event.”
And that exactly means what?
Says Farthing, “The RENT: LIVE album is primarily comprised of four performances prior to the broadcast, captured live on the soundstage – some with and some without an audience.”
Needless to say, Hunt’s accident didn’t hurt his voice. He and everyone else in the cast has a good time with many variations on the themes we’ve known and loved.
As we’ve all learned from “Seasons of Love,” a year has 525,600 minutes. That means more than 12,142,080 minutes have passed since the world discovered “Seasons of Love” and the other dozens of songs in RENT. Along the way, the show has managed ten achievements which no other musical in the entire history of New York theater has been able to achieve.
It’s 1) played Broadway, 2) recorded an original Broadway cast album, 3) received a Tony as Best Musical, 4) won a Pulitzer Prize, 5) made of DVD of its Broadway closing, 6) been made into a feature film, 7) yielded a soundtrack, 8) played off-Broadway, 9) became a TV special that also 10) spawned a TV soundtrack.
And here is the newest RENT — with an option to buy.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.