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Bohemia, Bohemia

Michael Portantiere compares and contrasts Rent with its antecedent, La Bohème. logo
Anthony Rapp and cast in Rent
(© Sony Pictures)
Director Chris Columbus's flawed but wonderful film version of Jonathan Larson's imperfect yet beautiful rock musical Rent is bringing the property to hundreds of thousands of people who never saw the stage show -- and it's a safe bet that many of those people are not familiar with La Bohème, the Giacomo Puccini opera upon which the musical is based. (The opera itself was inspired by the novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème and its subsequent stage adaptation, both by Henri Murger.)

When Rent opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop and subsequently moved to Broadway in 1996, there was some commentary on how closely (or not) it followed Bohème; but that was years ago, and now seems like a good time to offer a new, detailed analysis of the similarities and differences between the two pieces. (Please note that my comments on Rent below are based on the film version, which varies from the original in terms of the time frame of the action and certain minor plot elements. Note also that the lines from Bohéme are quoted in English translation of the original Italian by librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.)

Just as the Rent movie may inspire those who love it to catch up with the stage show, still running in New York at the Nederlander Theatre, those of us who adore classic opera can hope that upcoming presentations of Bohème may also get a boost at the box office. The Metropolitan Opera has several performances of the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini's masterwork coming up in the next few weeks, while the New York City Opera will offer its more intimate version in the spring. Get your tickets now -- and if you haven't seen Rent on stage and/or on screen, make it a point to do so. Hint: You'll get an extra emotional kick if you attend the opera and/or the musical right around Christmas, when most of the action of both takes place.


Ileana Cotrubas and Neil Shicoff in La Bohème
at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden
In Bohème: Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Colline, a philosopher; Schaunard, a musician; Mimi, a seamstress; Musetta, a woman of easy virtue; Benoit, a landlord; Alcindoro, an elderly "admirer" of Musetta. (Note: The character Alcindoro has no direct counterpart in Rent.)

In Rent: Roger Davis, a rock musician-singer-songwriter; Mark Cohen, a filmmaker; Tom Collins, a "computer genius, teacher, vagabond anarchist"; Angel Schunard, a drag queen and street performer; Mimi Marquez, a dancer; Maureen Johnson, a performance artist; Benjamin Coffin III, a landlord; Joanne Jefferson, a lawyer. (Note: The character Joanne has no direct counterpart in La Bohème.)

In the opera, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard all room together in a garret in Paris circa 1830. On Christmas Eve, Rodolfo meets his downstairs neighbor Mimi, who is suffering from tuberculosis, and they fall in love at first sight. Marcello is having an on-again, off-again relationship with the outrageous coquette Musetta; currently, it's off again. Having evaded eviction by Benoit, the roommates go to celebrate in the Latin Quarter, with Mimi accompanying Rodolfo. Some time later, Rodolfo's romance with Mimi sours because he can't stand to watch her health deteriorate; he also jealously accuses her of eyeing other men. The two sadly decide that they must separate but will wait until the spring to do so because "to be alone in winter is death." They eventually do break up, but she returns to his garret many months later and dies in his arms. He sobs over her lifeless body as his friends watch helplessly.

In the musical, Roger and Mark are roommates in an industrial loft in the East Village circa 1989; Collins used to live with them and still visits often. On Christmas Eve, Roger meets his downstairs neighbor Mimi, and they fall in love at first sight. (Roger, Mimi, and Collins are HIV-positive.) Mark has just been "dumped" by Maureen, who is now in a lesbian relationship with Joanne. Collins meets and falls in love with Angel, who is also HIV-positive, when (s)he tends to him after he's attacked on the street. Meanwhile, Roger and Mark are fighting eviction by Benny, who used to live with them but is now their landlord. After a romance of several months, Roger leaves Mimi because she can't kick her heroin habit and also because he suspects that she has again taken up with Benny, her former lover. Angel dies from AIDS complications and is mourned by the rest of the group. Roger leaves for Santa Fe after breaking up with Mimi but soon returns to New York. A year after he first met Mimi, she is carried back to the loft by Maureen and Joanne, gravely ill. She loses consciousness and appears to have died in the heartbroken Roger's arms, but then she revives to live at least a little while longer. She and her boho friends celebrate the fact that there is "no day but today."

Adam Pascal and Rosario Dawson in Rent
(© Sony Pictures)
Parrot or dog? In Bohème, Schaunard tells Rodolfo, Marcello, and Colline an amazing story about how he was hired by a rich Englishman to play music until an annoying parrot died; it didn't work, so he poisoned the creature instead. In Rent, Angel Schunard tells Roger, Mark, and Collins that (s)he was hired by a woman to drum so long and hard that a neighbor's annoying dog -- an Akita named Evita -- would be driven to jump out the window, thus giving the woman much needed relief from his constant barking.

Key or smack? In Bohème, Mimi comes upstairs to Rodolfo's garret to have her candle re-lit, then drops her key. In Rent, she comes to Roger's loft and asks him to light her candle, then drops her stash of heroin.

Stolen or pawned? Towards the beginning of Rent, Collins's coat is "purloined" when he's mugged on the street. In the last act of Bohème, Colline sells his coat to buy medicine for the dying Mimi.

The first of the opera's four acts contains a magnificent sequence that includes Rodolfo's bravura aria "Che gelida manina," in which he tells Mimi about himself, followed by her lovely, lyrical "Mi chiamano Mimi," in which she returns the favor. Then the two sing the soaring love duet "O soave fanciulla" before leaving the garret to join the other bohemians. Act II, set almost immediately thereafter in the Latin Quarter, is notable for its brilliant orchestrations and choral arrangements; it also includes the famously beguiling "Musetta's Waltz," which Musetta sings with the specific intention of making her old flame Marcello insanely jealous. Act III is highlighted by "Donde lieta usci," a heartbreaking aria in which Mimi bids farewell to Rodolfo, and by the famous quartet in which Musetta and Marcello bitterly break up (again) while Mimi and Rodolfo vow to stay together until the spring. Act IV is higlighted by "O Mimi, tu piu non torni," in which Rodolfo and Marcello mourn their lost loves Mimi and Musetta

Though it sounds a little like the James Bond theme, the title song of Rent is an exciting, hard-driving number for Mark and Roger (with full company backup) that perfectly sets the tone for the show. Among the score's many other great moments: Roger's "One Song Glory" is a moving monologue by a young man who fears that his life will be cut short before he creates anything worthwhile, and the "Light My Candle" is a charming, sexy, "meet cute" duet for Roger and Mimi. Angel's modified rap number "Today 4 U" is a high-energy show stopper. The haunting "No Day But Today" is first sung by the members of the AIDS group Life Support, later by Mimi, and finally by all of the leads. "Take Me or Leave Me" is a hot, hot, hot love/hate duet for Maureen and Joanne, very different from Musetta's Waltz even though some of the Maureen's and Musetta's lyrics are quite similar. And the beautiful ensemble number "Seasons of Love," which begins the Rent film (but not the stage version) and is later reprised, is justly regarded as the score's brightest jewel.

Act II of Franco Zeffirelli's production La Bohème at the Met
(Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
"Thin women are a headache and often boring, and they're full of aches and pains." (Benoit to the bohemians)
"When it comes to dreams and visions and castles in the air, I have the soul of a millionaire." (Rodolfo to Mimi)
"I live alone in a little, white room overlooking the rooftops; but when the spring thaw comes, the first sun is mine. April's first kiss is mine." (Mimi to Rodolfo)
"I hate these lovers who act like husbands!" (Musetta to Marcello)
"We'll part in the spring. I wish that winter would last forever." (Mimi to Rodolfo)

"They say that I have the best ass below 14th Street." (Mimi to Roger)
"I didn't recognize you without the handcuffs." (Roger to Mimi)
"It was my lucky day today on Avenue A." (Angel to Roger, Mark, and Collins)
"Forget regret, or life is yours to miss." (Mimi to Roger)
"You can take the girl out of Hicksville, but you can't take the Hicksville out of the girl." (Mark to Maureen)
"When you're living in America at the end of the millennium, you're what you own." (Mark and Roger) "Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes; how do you measure a year in the life? How about love?" (Ensemble)

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