'Rent' Producers Want to Honor the Original but Deliver a Live Event "on Steroids"

Julie Larson and the original creative team explain why it took so long for the musical to make it to the small screen, and why they're not worried about conservative backlash.
Pamela Littky/FOX

The timing had to be exactly right for Rent to make it to television.

Julie Larson, sister of late composer Jonathan Larson, fielded multiple offers over the years to bring her brother's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical to the small screen, but it wasn't until super-producer Marc Platt (La La Land, Fox's Grease Live) approached her for the second time — about two or three years ago — that it finally felt like the timing was right.

"We held back and wanted to wait until it felt like it was the right mix of people, the right timing of what we were going to be able to do, and be authentic to Rent and still bring it forward and expand it for this generation, and have the flexibility to do all that," she told The Hollywood Reporter. Platt, she said, "organically understood the show and was a fan of the show."

The second time Platt approached her family, "like kismet, everything felt right and fell into place."

The first order of business was recruiting members of the original creative team, including director Michael Greif and costume designer Angela Wendt, to "give them the opportunity to revisit it and expand it in ways that my brother might have done, or just the way the times call for now."

Rent follows a group of twentysomething starving artists in New York's East Village in the '90s as they struggle with addiction, sexuality, identity and HIV/AIDS diagnoses — and it was most important for Greif that Platt and his team not whitewash any of the more difficult issues the characters face.

But, Greif told THR, "[Platt] made it very clear to me that this would be a television version of the musical that would really keep the emotional stakes of the musical. It would keep the dark circumstances of the characters' lives very much a part of the musical."

The Fox version of the show will hew closely to the same musical fans have watched for more than 20 years — but thanks to Greif, Wendt and other members of the original creative team, they've been able to adjust certain aspects for television, be it profanity that doesn't necessarily need to be included or small bits of score that could be trimmed to fit a three-hour run time.

"The biggest problem with Rent is that there's just too much of it," said executive producer Adam Siegel. "While some curse words will be eliminated to appease standards and practices, the real question is: How can we make little trims in places in order to just fit into the box?"

Siegel's wife tells a story about how a family she knew would always trim the ends off of a roast before they cooked it — a tradition that started with their grandmother. When they asked her why, she said, "We only did that because our pot was too small." With Greif on board, he's able to remember the things Larson and his team did because the pot was too small. (Jonathan Larson died suddenly the night before Rent's off-Broadway debut.)

"What we really tried to do is build a fence around the moments that are really important and fight for that stuff we really believe in, but [not] the stuff where Michael sort of says, 'You don't have to say fuck there. It fit the rhythm and that's why we put it in.' We're able to let that stuff go," Siegel said. "Having the credibility of some of the people that were there at the beginning has really allowed us to know which were the battles to fight, because not all salacious stuff is built equally."

Greif and Wendt are not the only ones revisiting the musical. Music director Stephen Oremus, who music directed the second national tour in 1999, is returning after 20 years and hoping to put just enough of a spin on the score that it sounds both familiar and fresh.

"The score is the score, but we're enhancing it," Oremus said. "We're doing it with a much larger orchestra than it had been presented prior. The original Rent band was five pieces, and we're performing it with 23 musicians live. ... My hope is that we're delivering Rent, we're just delivering Rent on steroids. It's just going to feel a little bit bigger, a little bit more epic, a little bit more exciting, hopefully. But it really is just about honoring the score and the songs that we know, and giving it a sound that matches how it's being presented visually."

Even the fresh creative blood on board holds Rent close to their heart: Production designer Jason Sherwood, who has designed both musicals (Frozen, The Wiz) and concerts (Sam Smith's World Tour), is the youngest at 29 — but he saw Rent in high school and fell in love. He brings with him both a healthy affinity for the musical and ideas of how to change it.

He's conceived a "360-degree immersive event" housed in one soundstage on the Fox lot that includes audience seating all around, and two standing-room-only pits for more audience members.

"That means that everyone and everything needs to be dancing together, which means the actors and the camera and lighting and sound and the live band that's in the room all need to be moving as one unit," he explained. "And that requires an insane amount of preparation. But also the ability to create a sense of spontaneity. That's been the greatest challenge: making sure that we are choreographing that dance the right way."

The room can accommodate more than 1,000 audience members, which Sherwood hopes will "create that feeling of when you watch a taped Madonna concert or when you watch Taylor Swift's concert on Netflix this year — you are aware of the audience in more than just they sound like a laugh track in the background. That creates an energy for the performers, for the performance, for the people at home. It creates this vitality on camera."

TV director Alex Rudzinski, who works in concert with Greif, wanted "to do so much more than just create a PBS-style proscenium theatrical presentation." Rudzinski won an Emmy for directing the network's Grease Live and also helmed NBC's productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hairspray, and Fox's A Christmas Story. While Rent being entirely indoors gives it a leg up over Grease in the logistics department — the worry of a rare Los Angeles rainstorm won't be present on Sunday — Rent presents its own challenges, particularly in portraying the emotion and intimacy of the show.

"Especially in this work, I feel, more than any of our previous musicals, I have a duty to lean into the drama of it all, and a duty to tell the emotional context between our characters," he said. "All that intimacy and portraying that is very core to this musical, this show. We're not outside. We're in one soundstage. It's 360. It's an immersive environment. We can choose when to bring the audience in, and I think finding those beats — Mimi appearing in her apartment for the first time, Angel walking into the loft — really loved moments that all the Rent-heads are obsessed about, they're all there. You want to pull back at those moments and see them play out, not just in the characters' framing but from a perspective of the audience in the house to show the energy that'll you're going to hear. So it's choosing the times when to pull back and show them."

Another fan-favorite moment is one of Rudzinski's biggest challenges, too: the massive musical number that ushers out the first act, "La Vie Boheme." Said the director, "It's so loved, and I want to capture all the energy of it. It's a really fast scene, and it's long as well, and so [I'm] trying to capture all the moments. There's incredibly snappy, quick dialogue. There's beautiful choreography in it. It takes you on this energetic build across six or seven minutes, and it's all within an act that starts off with Maureen's stage show, which is kind of random and full-on and weird in a whole different way. It's, like, a 12-minute act, and there's so much in it. So that's technically challenging, but that's why we do these shows — because we love those challenges, and I think the viewers are going to love it, too."

Logistics aside, yes, the subject matter of Rent is risky. But Siegel said the discussions Rent will spark are ones people need to have.

"We're going to stand on a table and talk about all these issues in people's living rooms, whether they're comfortable or not," he said. "But it also feels risky in that these are real emotions and real characters, and people are dying. And Rent, as much as you remember these songs as being really soaring, this is a drama. There are real stakes. There's real emotions. And to give that to an audience in a three-hour musical live format is something different that's [not] been done before. Grease is a party. Rent's not a party."

When Jonathan Larson wrote the musical, he wanted to bring those issues to people's attention via characters they'll grow to love.

Said Siegel, "This music was written by a young man who believed in all the things, like love and change and hope and purity, that sometimes people have forgotten about. And that stuff comes through, and if we can reach through with a beam of network television that hits all these households and light people up, electrify them, that's what we're trying to do."

Oremus remembers visiting cities across the country at the turn of the century and realizing just how important the representation in the musical was to kids who didn't yet have the Internet to connect with people like them.

"It's become so casual that there is LGBTQ representation on television and in the media now. But in '99, when we toured, there was nothing, and these kids were coming to see that show and losing their freaking minds to see themselves represented on a stage," he said. "It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.... That's what excites me the most about this version of this show, is to reach a whole new audience and to have a new generation experience this. And I don't think we should minimize that — seeing LGBTQ couples on camera in lead roles is always a great thing in my book, because it is representative of so many of us in society. And it really gives these kids a chance to say, 'Hey, there's me.'"

Will there be pushback from conservatives? Maybe, but Larson in particular isn't worried. "We've had that from day one," she said. "I've [seen] a lot of conservative people who initially had no interest in Rent going on [about the subject matter], and then when they actually saw it, they found that so many of the values that are espoused in Rent are very—"

"They're wholesome," said Greif. "They're about being good to one another."

Finished Larson, "I think it's necessary now more than ever, and I think hearing the messages of Rent is more relevant than ever. Especially for a new generation. To me, it's always been about community and tolerance and being authentic and finding your authentic self, and about empathy and inclusion and love. All those things are necessary now more than ever, and relevant always, But in some times I think you need to hear that stuff more than others."

Rent airs Sunday, Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. on Fox.