Brandon Victor Dixon on What It’s Like to Perform in a Live TV Musical

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Now a veteran of the live television musical phenomenon (he was Emmy-nominated for last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert”), Brandon Victor Dixon steps into the (very) well-worn shoes of Tom Collins in Fox’s upcoming “Rent: Live.” Speaking with Backstage, the triple threat, who performed the same role Off-Broadway in 2011, calls Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical even more relevant today than it was when it debuted 20 years ago.

Tell us about “Rent: Live.”
When I saw the layout of everything the first day, I got very, very excited, and when I first heard the announcement of the show I was like, “Oh, this could be really special, but also it could be very difficult.” “Rent” can be a very specific piece even though its messages are absolutely timeless and timely. I also think “Rent” is the greatest unfinished musical, so I was like, “I hope they really take the time to make it relevant to today’s audience.” Everything about this experience since we started has just gotten me more and more excited. I think it’s going to be an overwhelmingly special event for us to share together as a community at this time.

READ: Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert Is a New Kind of Musical Telecast

What was your first experience with “Rent”?
I saw it when I was a sophomore in college, so I first saw it in 2000, something like that. And then I had to audition for it a couple of months later, so I really started to listen to the album and really dig into it. That’s when I first fell in love with the show.

What’s different about performing in a live TV musical versus a stage musical?
The biggest difference is you have to create an experience that is real for people in different places. It’s got to be as real for the people right in front of you as it is for the people watching you onscreen. It just takes a lot of coordination with the technical team to make sure you’re building this show that can exist in different places. Fortunately, we have a wonderful technical team and producers. Our stage managers, they’ve been through this in a number of incarnations, and they learned a great deal each time.

Why does “Rent” still resonate two decades later?
Jonathan Larson wrote an urgent message: Love each other, love yourself. He said it quite literally over and over again for two and a half hours, to the point that at the end of the show, we just sit there and say that to the audience. Whether you die during this play, whether you live during the play, we’re all going to come here and we’re going to sit here and sing it to your face until you get it: “No day but today”; “I die without you.” It’s just clearer and clearer how urgent a plea that is, and how desperately necessary a plea that is. How grateful I am to be a part of a group of people determined to get together so we can sit in front of a camera and tell the world to love each other and to love themselves.

Do you remember what your first headshot looked like?
My first headshot was taken by my friend, [who] was the high school yearbook photographer. I was wearing an electric blue button-down shirt and black pants, and I had a pencil-thin mustache. I was in a crouch—the crouch with your forearm on one knee, and then you’re holding your chin with your hand.

Did you have a survival job when you were getting started?
Not when I was starting out. I got my first job just out of college doing “Lion King,” but after—because I was an irresponsible young man when I was on tour—I did come back and I bartended in the city until “The Color Purple” opened on Broadway. I was a bartender at three or four places. [One was] this lounge down by NYU, which was owned by these young guys. That place was a mess. We were taking high-end liquor bottles and filling them with cheap stuff from around the corner. Because the place wasn’t making enough money during the day, they would run after-hour parties. We were having after-hour parties until 8 in the morning, I was turning people’s jackets and coats until 8:30 a.m., people were doing drugs in the bar—it was pretty crazy. But I also bartended at this lounge uptown near Columbia, and they would have drag shows. When I left to go do “Color Purple,” they threw a great party for me and I still stop by that bar sometimes and say hi.

Do you have a bad audition story you can share?
I don’t have anything that is acutely worse than anybody else’s. It’s just like, you go in, you sing that song, and it sounds terrible. I don’t have one that’s more [awful] than anyone else’s.

How do you typically prepare for an audition?
It really depends on the piece, but I work the lines and I work the music and I just try to think about connecting with the people in the room. I’m not one of those “look at the back wall” auditioners. I’m putting on the show. I try and connect with the material and I try and connect with the people in the room. I just try to think about what I can give with the material and then go from there. And I try not to care too much about any auditions anymore, because I don’t have the information for caring to be of any value.

What advice would you offer to your early career self?
Love the people around you and love yourself. That’s it, really.

Inspired? Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!