Look up “Catty Queens” in the dictionary and it will read, “see also: Theater Queens.”
Look up “Theater Queens” and it will read, “see also: Gay Men.”
The knives, nails, and fangs were all out on social media as RENT: Live took to the [sound] stage, and these queens came to draw blood.
I was once on a TV show that paid me to make snarky comments about other TV shows, and my credentials for the job included being a gay man, a theater queen, a TV junkie and a native New Yorker with no filter from brain to mouth. Still, this gay, theater-loving TV junkie from New York City saw so much that we should be celebrating, not bashing, about RENT: Live on FOX.
I should admit that I was a total “Renthead” in high school. I was the perfect angsty age when the show become a phenomenon. I slept on the street to get tickets to see the original cast several times (full disclosure, I paid someone to sleep on the street for me; I was, and still am, too precious to sleep on the street). I performed “Over The Moon” for my Catholic high school’s talent show, making the entire school “moo” because they didn’t like our new uniforms, and my yearbook quote was a sampling of lyrics from “No Day But Today.”
So needless to say, as a fan, I was very skeptical when FOX announced that they would be doing RENT: Live.
By now we all know that the final product that aired on Sunday, January 27, was not the piece that the production team intended to present. An injury to one of the stars caused the network to forgo the live show and air a recorded dress rehearsal from the night before, except for the last 15 mins of the show, causing the hashtag #RentNotLive to trend on Twitter. There is no doubt that this may have hurt the energy of the piece, but it didn’t tarnish three major accomplishments.
LGBTQ representation was at an all-time high with RENT: Live.
Conservative groups like “One Million Moms” must have had unusually high reports of their members heads exploding as the young, live audience cheered on gay men, lesbians, drag queens, interracial couples, drug addicts, and HIV-positive straight couples kissing, groping, and dry humping each other while singing on national primetime television!
Those of us who have crossed the raging waters of fear to reach personal freedom may forget what it’s like to be closeted, or out-but-isolated, in your hometown as you desperately look to see themselves represented in the media. Just image the glittering explosion of joy young LGBTQ people must have felt seeing the boldfaced and unashamed queerness leaping from their screens! Do all of them fit into the archetypes of one of the characters in the show? Of course not, but perhaps they saw a piece of themselves in one or all of them, and that is invaluable.
Another musical was on network TV!
If you love musicals—and I pity the sad folks who don’t—then you must support all attempts to bring the art form to the small screen or else they will cease to exist there. The power of bringing live theater directly into the homes of people who may not have the means or the ability to access them otherwise is monumental. For these folks, this is an event that could have long lasting effects.
In a world where art and music have been ripped from our schools and are slowly disappearing from cultural favor, live telecasts of musicals might be the only thing left to usher in a new crop of theater fans, or inspire the next generation of performers to discover their calling in life. If social media and the internet have taught us anything it is that young people are like sponges just waiting to absorb everything they can. I feel that we have a responsibility to make sure that they are exposed to real culture beyond youtube, snapchat and instagram.
HIV/AIDS awareness and activism on full display!
Just imagine what Jonathan Larson, the creator of RENT, would think about his little musical being broadcast to millions of people on TV, with commercial breaks that included ads for a pill called PrEP that can successfully prevent someone from being infected with the HIV virus. We shouldn’t take for granted just how far we’ve come in the battle against this disease.
During the broadcast, ACT UP!, the original HIV awareness and activists group who are referenced in the song “La Vie Bohème,” tweeted a reminder, and maybe more importantly, an introduction, of who they are to the RENT: Live audience.
When watching #RENTLive tonight, please remember to keep AIDS in the conversation, that ACT UP still exists today, and that we’ve still got work to do to end the epidemic and protect our long-term survivors.
— ACT UP New York (@actupny) January 27, 2019
ACT UP NY also took the opportunity to call out Gilead, the maker of Truvada (PreP), for their price gouging practices on this life-saving drug that could help eradicate the disease.
This alone amplifies the importance of RENT’s original underlying message. We are still fighting this fight. People may be “living with, not dying from” this disease, but HIV/AIDS is not over.
— ACT UP New York (@actupny) January 28, 2019
I would be a hypocrite to wag my finger at people for hate-watching and live-tweeting a television broadcast. I’ve done it. Some of my most retweeted tweets were birthed from this ritual, but last night I couldn’t bring myself to join in. Maybe the material is too close to me, or maybe I decided to shed my jaded veneer and watch RENT: Live through the eyes of 15-year-old closeted Scott who was dazzled, inspired, terrified and schooled by RENT on Broadway.
Whatever flaws there were in RENT: Live, I chose to look past them and see a moment where we’ve made progress through art, educated through entertainment and inspired through song. When a moment like that comes along we should lift it up, celebrate it, and sing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s immortal Hamilton lyrics: “Look around, look around / At how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
This piece is dedicated to all of the catty theater queens that we lost to AIDS. We wish you were here with us throwing the most shade about the fact that we have opinion pieces like this one.