RENT: From La Boheme to Bohemian Cliché

Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

RENT. This well-known musical today has become the most famous example of bohemia in the modern world. Countless people have followed this musical for years and people today, of all ages, continue to live in the world of Rent. I, personally, have found myself to be one of these fanatics who have become obsessed with the show. But more than the show, I am interested by the characters. These bohemians have become known to the world, and yet, where did the idea for each character start.

The musical and movie Rent came from the opera La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. The original La Boheme tells the story of a group of bohemians in Paris in the 19th century. Similarly, Rent tells the story of 20th century Bohemians; however, they are now living in New York. In La Boheme, the main characters of Rodolfo and Marcello are a poet and a painter, and are both influenced by their feelings of love and their feelings of loss. Now, although the characters of Rent are troubled by the same feelings, Roger (based on Rodolfo) is a struggling musician and Mark (based on Marcello) is a struggling filmmaker. The love interest of Rodolfo is Mimi, and still today, Mimi is the name of Roger’s love interest in Rent. The name of Marcello’s ex-girlfriend is Musetta, whereas the name in Rent is Maureen. The other main characters in La Boheme are Colline, Shaunard and Benoit; in Rent, their names have been changed to Collins, Angel and Benny. Although the names have almost all changed, the original names still have an influence on the modern names of the Rent characters.

Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

La Boheme’s Libretto, purchased at a garage sale. Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

Consequently, as the names and time periods have changed, so have the characters. For example, the professors of Rodolfo and Marcello have gone from a poet and a painter to a musician and a filmmaker. The original characters have very conventional professions and character descriptions as well. Mimi was a simple seamstress, Colline was a philosopher, Shaunard was a musician and Benoit was the landlord of the other bohemians. In the modern version of Rent, Mimi is a stripper, Collins is a professor and Angel is a street performer/drag queen. The only role that has not changed is Benny’s, for he is still the landlord of Mark and Roger.

The storyline has changed between La Boheme and Rent as well, in order to keep up with the time change and character change. For example, in La Boheme, the seamstress Mimi is deathly ill with an unidentified disease. In contrast, Mimi of Rent is sick with AIDS, which she had contracted due to her use of needles for dependency on heroin. Due to this drastic change in the character, the storyline changed as well. Roger is a recovering heroin addict, and his relationship troubles with Mimi set in as they battle through her dependency.

The original characters of Colline and Shaunard are friends of roommates Rodolfo and Marcello. In Rent, the story changes to Collins being the friend of Mark and Roger. Collins meets Angel when he is mugged on the streets of New York and they become lovers, rather than simply friends. Musetta’s character is changed as well. In La Boheme, she leaves Marcello and ends up with another man named Alcindoro, a state councilor. In Rent, however, Maureen leaves Mark for a lawyer named Joanne. These two homosexual couples have been created from characters who were originally heterosexual. In the past, homosexual relationships were looked down upon and not accepted. These two relationships were able to emerge and be created within the story without significant societal backlash.

When looking at homosexuality in Rent, one sees that bringing gay couples into Rent is an important modernization of the original. LGBTQ persons, like bohemians, are very often marginalized and seen as what Edward Said would describe as “the other”. Still today, but more so in the 19th century, LGBTQ people were seen as a very small group outside of the normativity of heterosexuality. Likewise, bohemians are often outside of the norm. Rent depicts depicts the intersections of these groups of marginalized people.

Bohemians are often defined as people who reject authority and lead an unconventional lifestyle. Bohemians are typically artists, in one way or another, and therefore, they lead a less structured life than the working class people who work 9-to-5 jobs and rely on these jobs for a paycheck and a way to make ends meet.

Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

A run down apartment in New York. Similar to the apartment buildings that the characters of Rent could barely afford. Photo courtesy of Mia Ciravolo

One can look at homosexuality in bohemia, and use that in looking at the idea of queer theory. For example, the Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drives looks into queer theory by studying variations in sex, gender and desire. However, it is most often associated with queer individuals. While queer theory covers a large number of ideas, the ideas are mainly seen as outside of the norm as well. Rent takes these queer relationships into account as a way to draw a parallel between queer people and bohemians being outside of the normal structure of society.

While queerness and bohemia are still stigmatized, both are more so accepted in society today. This change from the original La Boheme shows how society has changed and how the norm is slowly becoming less of a norm. More and more today, people outside of the norm are being accepted as individuals and facing less societal backlash. Although in many areas these marginalized people would not be accepted, New York is a place of unique culture and experiences that allow for these people to be accepted more often. Most likely one of the reasons that Rent is set in New York, the original La Boheme has changed to reflect the changes made in society. While the original characters and many of the same themes are still focused on and expressed in the modern version of Rent, several details have changed, paralleling how times have changed and how the heteronormativity is being broken down.

 

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