Before Hamilton there was Rent: a Broadway musical set in a changing political time starring a diverse group of young people that represent a true cross-section of America's demographics. The musical, which opened in 1996, inspired one of the most passionate fan bases ever. So-called Rentheads were stans before "Stan" (or even the internet) — and the community is stronger than ever today.
That's why the castmembers of Fox's upcoming live production know there are a lot of people out there they do not want to disappoint.
The musical, set in New York's East Village in the '90s, follows a group of twentysomething starving artists who are struggling with identity, sexuality, addiction and HIV/AIDS. It's not exactly a lighthearted Christmas tale, though the show does open on Christmas Eve.
While it might not be quite as family-friendly as some of Fox's previous live musicals (Emmy-winning Grease), Rent's impact is hard to overstate. (Poll anyone who sang in a high school choir in the past 20 years — there's approximately a 100 percent chance they've sung "Seasons of Love" or "Finale B" at a concert or graduation.)
To prepare for Sunday night's production, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Rent stars Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher, Brandon Victor Dixon, Valentina and more about the biggest challenges they're facing, their own history with the musical and their favorite songs from the Tony-winning Broadway smash.
MARK COHEN (Jordan Fisher)
Who he is: An aspiring filmmaker and the narrator of the story whose girlfriend, Maureen, leaves him for a woman.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the subsequent movie by Anthony Rapp.
Fisher's take: When the Disney veteran was 10 years old, he told an acting mentor that he wanted to play the first Mark Cohen of color on Broadway. Now, 14 years later, the Alabama native and recent Dancing With the Stars winner's dream is coming true. "The essence of Mark for me is, as the narrator of the story, to allow America [and] anybody that’s watching the show to go on this journey with him through his eyes, through the lens of his camera, and to see what he really deals with," the actor told THR. Mark's the outsider of the group — he was born into privilege, and he's not struggling with a disease or addiction or his sexuality — and Fisher's version of the character is "a little more tortured" than others. "My Mark is a bit more of a caretaker than we’ve seen in the past, somebody that is really the glue that just tries his best to hold everybody together," he said. That desire stems from "his innate yearning for a community and sense of family."
Favorite Mark song: "'La Vie Boheme' is a lot of fun. It’s a very ensemble-driven piece. But 'Halloween' is one that’s always been a favorite of mine."
ROGER DAVIS (Brennin Hunt)
Who he is: Mark's roommate, an HIV-positive rock musician and former addict who falls for Mimi.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the movie by Adam Pascal.
Hunt's take: The Nashville musician and his high school buddies used to poke fun at their Rent-obsessed friend, but when the friend took Hunt to see the show a few years later — his first Broadway musical — he fell in love. "After the show I was hooked. I was like, man, I get it. I totally get what you're obsessed with this," he told THR. While Hunt has very little acting experience — he booked his first role in 2015 — Rent is not his first time on TV. The musician competed on the first season of Fox's The X Factor, where he was edited as one of the season's villains. "My debut on that show was in slow motion walking outside of key arena with the song 'I'm Sexy and I Know It.' And I'm like, 'Oh, my God.' They took all of my interviews out of context," he said. "Whatever. It is what it is. You know what? I got a publishing deal after that though. It was my first publishing deal. I don't regret doing the show. I'll probably never do another reality show again, but you know, never say never." As for Roger, Hunt is channeling some of his favorite rock stars for the role. "I'm a big fan of the grunge era, so a little bit of [Chris] Cornell, a little bit of [Eddie] Vedder, a little bit of [Kurt] Cobain, but I've also always been a fan of the show, so I love what Adam Pascal did. I love what Will Chase did. I'm taking pieces of things that I really love what they did and then my whole little spin on it."
Favorite Roger song: "'Light My Candle.' The music [reminds] me of Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel,' just the vibe of it, and working with Tinashe on that is incredible. She's an amazing performer, singer and sweetheart of a human being. We have great chemistry together and it's a lot of fun. Roger's so serious for most of the musical and it's the one moment where I get to be light and fun and playful with her."
MAUREEN (Vanessa Hudgens)
Who she is: Mark's manic pixie dream girl ex, an outspoken performance artist who falls in love with the buttoned-up Joanne.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the movie by Idina Menzel.
Hudgens' take: The actress is no stranger to live TV musicals, emerging as one of the brightest stars of Fox's Grease Live. Hudgens got her start in Disney's High School Musical franchise, and told THR that she wants to do one musical a year for the rest of her career. "I'm the happiest when I'm doing musicals," she said. While Hudgens played Mimi in the 2010 Hollywood Bowl production of Rent, this time around, as Maureen, working with Fisher has been a highlight of her experience. "I feel like we both have such a love for musical theater and a love for Rent even before we came to it, [and] it really just translates," she said. "Also the fact that we have a relationship already and Maureen and Mark have had a relationship in the past — it all goes hand in hand. It all works perfectly." Hudgens also sees other similarities between herself and the larger-than-life character: "It's been so much fun finding Maureen within myself because she is loud and she loves being the center of attention, and I am a performer. I love having all eyes on me. She expresses herself in a way that is unique to her own, and she's an artist, and I feel like that's what I aspire to be like as well."
Favorite Maureen song: "'Over the Moon' is such a beast of a number. I have no one else to rely on, no one else to feed me anything. It's just literally me, me and me."
Who she is: An HIV-positive stripper and heroin addict who falls in love with Roger.
Original cast: Played on Broadway by Daphne Rubin-Vega, and in the movie by Rosario Dawson.
Favorite Mimi song: "People keep thinking [I'm most looking forward to] 'Out Tonight,' which is fun, but I think my favorite song to perform is 'Without You.' It’s a good one. It’s just a beautiful and special moment."
JOANNE (Kiersey Clemons)
Who she is: A Harvard-educated lawyer who falls in love with free spirit Maureen.
Original cast: Played on Broadway by Fredi Walker, and in the movie by Tracie Thoms.
Clemons' take: The indie darling (Dope, Hearts Beat Loud) told THR that one of the best parts about her castmembers' varied backgrounds — Broadway, TV, film, music, drag — is that they all excel at different skills. "When everyone is stronger in all of these different areas, whether it's being on stage or being in front of the camera, singing or dancing, we're able to lean in to each other and help each other with the stuff that maybe you're not so comfortable with," said Clemons. "I'm getting comfortable with all this stuff in my ears, like my mic, and then to hear everything. I have no idea what's going on. I'm like, 'We do not do this with indie movies. What is happening?'" She's also a fan of the fact that stage director Michael Greif has been able to expand his vision beyond what he'd normally get to do without cameras: "There are so many things that Michael wanted to do that he couldn't on the stage that he gets to do now because it has a cinematic element, and I'm so excited that I get to be part of living out those dreams for him. You know, we get to now like really go there with, say, 'Over the Moon' and 'La Vie Boheme' and so many angles." Clemons' Joanne pays tribute to the women who played the role before her. "I'm channeling the OGs, you know, Tracie Thoms and Fredi Walker, just trying to infuse the two," said the actress. "They both played Joanne in different ways and the way that they love Maureen, it's nice to try to balance out the two. And then of course just add a little Kiersey flair — whatever that means. I don't know! We're going to find out."
Favorite Joanne song: "There's always with things like this those few bits and numbers where I know the Rentheads are like, 'Do not eff this up for me,' and 'Take Me or Leave Me' feels like one of those. But I'm not worried because Vanessa is an amazing counterpart and it's so juicy. It's going to be great."
TOM COLLINS (Brandon Victor Dixon)
Who he is: Mark and Roger's old roommate, an NYU professor living with AIDS who falls in love with Angel.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the movie by Jesse L. Martin.
Dixon's take: The Broadway vet, who was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Judas in NBC's live Jesus Christ Superstar, was offered the role of Benny in one of Rent's national tours, but he didn't want the role. He wanted to play Collins — and he did, years later, in the 2011 off-Broadway revival of the musical. So Dixon has got plenty of experience with the material, and knows the challenges of the show intimately. "I always tell people that Rent is the greatest unfinished musical, right? So the challenge with this show is that you really only get one shot to tell all these people: an audience that’s familiar with this show something new that they haven’t thought about in a while, and also a whole new audience to this show that have heard so much about it, and now you have a bar to measure up to," he said. "We have to work through this incredibly complex, layered, beautiful but dense material to make sure everybody understands what we’re saying." Dixon continued, "It’s very easy to start singing these songs, but that’s not the point. The point is to communicate the emotions and the characters and the struggle that they’re going through, these lessons of empathy, these lessons of love. I think that’s the key to the matrix that we’re working to figure out here: How can we really make sure that everybody gets this urgent message that this young man, Jonathan Larson, was trying to communicate to us?" Another challenge: the fact that this is being performed for an audience of millions, rather than a few hundred in a theater. "It’s hard to tell Rent on this scale, because it’s such an intimate show," the actor explained. "I think maybe Jesus Christ Superstar lent itself to more grander themes in a certain respect, but I think it’s a worthy challenge. If you’re going to create, these are the kinds of things you want to endeavor to bring to people. It’s wonderful work. It’s honest work, and I think it’s work that can be a great deal of value to the people who can see it and receive it right now."
Favorite Collins song: "It’s probably the reprise, but I have a great deal of fun with 'Santa Fe' as well. There are elements of each of them that I love. [The lyrics of] 'Santa Fe' ... keep flipping from his idea of let’s open up a restaurant in Santa Fe to we’ll open up a restaurant in Santa Fe. ... One of the things I love about our production is that we’re working very hard to make sure that people understand the urgency of the time and just the lack of anything to hold on to. You didn't know what was going to happen the next day to you or anybody around you."
Who she is: A drag queen with AIDS who falls in love with Collins.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the movie by Wilson Jermaine Heredia.
Valentina's take: The RuPaul's Drag Race star (who is currently competing on the show's fourth All Stars edition) knows this is the role of a lifetime — and that plenty of musical theater veterans wanted to play Angel in the live production. But while Valentina has no major acting experience, she's loved Rent since singing "Seasons of Love" in high school choir and is up for the challenge. "I'm taking on singing, dancing, acting, quick changes, drag, no drag," she tells THR. "I'm not somebody that has studied lots of improv and techniques on how to learn a script and all the ins and outs of being in film or a TV show or been a bunch of plays. I've done a little bit, but it's really not what I do. I do drag." Valentina's Angel is inspired by one of the real-life drag queen's closest friends, but he doesn't know yet — Valentina plans to tell him when he comes to set to observe a dress rehearsal. Until then, she has onscreen love Dixon to walk her through the acting process. "He's there making sure that we're always connected and making sure that I'm okay and always giving me his professional advice — because he's an amazing singer — on what could help me and letting me always know that I'm doing a great job," said Valentina. "I just really connected and am really grateful to being able to work with him."
Favorite Angel song: 'I'll Cover You,' because she can pay tribute to Dixon for his advice and support. "He helps coach me through my moments of feeling overwhelmed with so much newness, and when we sing 'I'll Cover You,' it's a really sweet, tender moment where I get to thank him."
BENJAMIN COFFIN III (Mario)
Who he is: Mark and Roger's old roommate who married into a wealthy family — and is now his old friends' landlord and demands the year's worth of back rent they owe.
Original cast: Played on Broadway and in the movie by Taye Diggs.
Mario's take: The R&B singer, who was 16 when he had his first hit single ("Just a Friend" in 2002), was familiar with Rent's most famous songs, but didn't actually see the show until he was cast as Benny. "Of course I was moved by it," he told THR. "Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, you know, seeing poverty-stricken areas, witnessing a lot of my family members who suffer from substance abuse, and then at 15, 16 traveling the world touring and seeing the different perspective but then coming back to my city and realizing like there's a lot of things I would change about this whole situation. I can relate to that in Benny." Mario also understand's the character's desire to clean up the neighborhood where he used to live — and still feels connected to — and to support his friends. "The balance of the ego and compassion — I think he's balancing that throughout the whole show," he said. "He's like, 'Okay, am I going to lock the padlocks? Yeah, I'm gonna lock the padlocks. Am I gonna throw them out? No, actually I'm not gonna throw them out, I'm going to go and put the furniture back in.' He's challenging his morals." The singer is a Dancing With the Stars vet like Tinashe and Fisher (he competed back in 2008), and has acted a bit (Step Up, Freedom Writers and a recurring role on Empire). In order to get into character, Mario created his own backstory for Benny. "I've made him from the Bay Area," he explained. "I made him from San Francisco because it's not far from other business-minded people, but he's not completely homeless or completely coming from poverty, but he's also not from the suburbs."
Favorite Benny song: "I love 'You'll See.' That's the first time you really see Benny in his Benny mode."
Rent airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (tape-delayed PT) on Fox.