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La Bohéme to Rent: Legacies

By Kamilah Bush, PCS Literary Manager

La Bohéme

Rent is loosely based on the opera La Bohème, composed by Giacomo Puccini between 1893 and 1895 to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The opera itself is based on a series of stories called Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life) by French writer Louis-Henri Murger.

Within a few years of La Bohème’s 1896 world premiere in Turin, Italy, it had been performed in many of the leading opera houses of Europe, including Britain, and the United States. It remains as one of the most frequently performed operas ever written. 

Characters:

  • Rodolfo - a poet 
  • Mimì - a seamstress 
  • Marcello - a painter 
  • Musetta - a singer 
  • Schaunard - a musician 
  • Colline - a philosopher 
  • Benoît - their landlord
  • Alcindoro - a state councilor
  • Parpignol - a toy vendor 

Summary

Below is a summary of the four acts — shared by the Metropolitan Opera:

Act I

Paris, in the 1830s. In their Latin Quarter garret, the near-destitute artist Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm on Christmas Eve by feeding the stove with pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama. They are soon joined by their roommates — Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, fuel, and funds he has collected from an eccentric nobleman. While they celebrate their unexpected fortune, the landlord, Benoit, comes to collect the rent. After getting the older man drunk, the friends urge him to tell of his flirtations, then throw him out in mock indignation at his infidelity to his wife. As the others depart to revel at the Café Momus, Rodolfo remains behind to finish an article, promising to join them later. There is another knock at the door — the visitor is Mimì, a pretty neighbor, whose candle has gone out in the stairwell. As she enters the room, she suddenly feels faint. Rodolfo gives her a sip of wine, then helps her to the door and relights her candle. Mimì realizes that she lost her key when she fainted, and as the two search for it, both candles go out. Rodolfo finds the key and slips it into his pocket. In the moonlight, he takes Mimì’s hand and tells her about his dreams. She recounts her life alone in a lofty garret, embroidering flowers and waiting for the spring. Rodolfo’s friends call from outside, telling him to join them. He responds that he is not alone and will be along shortly. Happy to have found each other, Mimì and Rodolfo leave, arm in arm, for the café

Act II

Amid the shouts of street hawkers near the Café Momus, Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet and introduces her to his friends. They all sit down and order supper. The toy vendor Parpignol passes by, besieged by children. Marcello’s former sweetheart, Musetta, makes a noisy entrance on the arm of the elderly, but wealthy, Alcindoro. The ensuing tumult reaches its peak when, trying to gain Marcello’s attention, she loudly sings the praises of her own popularity. Sending Alcindoro away to buy her a new pair of shoes, Musetta finally falls into Marcello’s arms. Soldiers march by the café and, as the bohemians fall in behind, the returning Alcindoro is presented with the check.

Act III

At dawn at the Barrière d’Enfer, a toll-gate on the edge of Paris, a customs official admits farm women to the city. Guests are heard drinking and singing within a tavern. Mimì arrives, searching for the place where Marcello and Musetta now live. When the painter appears, she tells him of her distress over Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. She says she believes it is best that they part. As Rodolfo emerges from the tavern, Mimì hides nearby. Rodolfo tells Marcello that he wants to separate from Mimì, blaming her flirtatiousness. Pressed for the real reason, he breaks down, saying that her illness can only grow worse in the poverty they share. Overcome with emotion, Mimì comes forward to say goodbye to her lover. Marcello runs back into the tavern upon hearing Musetta’s laughter. While Mimì and Rodolfo recall past happiness, Marcello returns with Musetta, quarreling about her flirting with a customer. They hurl insults at each other and part, but Mimì and Rodolfo decide to remain together until springtime.

Act IV

Months later in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello, now separated from their girlfriends, reflect on their loneliness. Colline and Schaunard bring a meager meal. To lighten their spirits, the four stage a dance, which turns into a mock duel. At the height of the hilarity, Musetta bursts in with news that Mimì is outside, too weak to come upstairs. As Rodolfo runs to her aid, Musetta relates how Mimì begged to be taken to Rodolfo to die. She is made as comfortable as possible, while Musetta asks Marcello to sell her earrings for medicine and Colline goes off to pawn his overcoat. Left alone, Mimì and Rodolfo recall their meeting and their first happy days, but she is seized with violent coughing. When the others return, Musetta gives Mimì a muff to warm her hands and Mimì slowly drifts into unconsciousness. Musetta prays for Mimì, but it is too late. The friends realize that she is dead, and Rodolfo collapses in despair.

Parallels to Rent

Rent’s original Off-Broadway opening date was 100 years to the day of La Bohème premiering in Turin, and this was only the beginning of the ways they are connected. “I analyzed the libretto, broke it down beat by beat,” Larson told The New York Times. Baked into both Rent and La Bohème is the precarity of poverty, the ravages of epidemics, and the struggles of living as an artist. Below are some specifics Jonathan Larson pulled from La Bohème to build the world of Rent:

  • In La Bohème, Mimì and Rodolfo meet and fall in love in the moonlight. In the opera, the two flirt and fall in love during arias like “Che gelida manina” (“What a cold little hand”) and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimì”).
  • Marcello, the trusted best friend, is regarded as the one everyone in the group can turn to in crisis. After leaving the cold apartment that he shares with Rodolfo, Marcello must endure his ex-lover, Musetta, singing about her many admirers.
  • La Bohème’s Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives at the apartment with food, firewood, wine, cigars, and money. He explains that his temporary riches came from an eccentric, wealthy Englishman, who employed him to perform music to his dying parrot.
  • Colline, a philosopher, enters the apartment cold and unhappy in the first act of La Bohème after he was unable to pawn some books, but his mood soon changes after Schaunard shares the money and gifts he has earned from the wealthy Englishman. While the group of friends still have the money, Colline buys himself a coat, and Schaunard a horn. Colline expresses his sadness about how much things have changed from the first act in the aria “Vecchia Zimarra” (“Old Coat”) as he says goodbye to the coat he bought earlier in the year in order to try to afford medicine for Mimì.
  • The role of an animated singer is represented by Musetta in La Bohème and by Maureen in Rent. As the roommates of La Bohème enter Café Momus to celebrate Schaunard’s earnings, they encounter Marcello’s ex-lover Musetta, who is escorted by a rich new suitor. She sings about how much she enjoys having many male admirers in “Quando me’n vo” (“When I go along”).

Rent’s Legacy

Just as La Bohème is one of the world’s most performed operas, Rent is one of theater’s most enduring musicals. 26 years after its premiere, it is still one of the top 10 longest-running shows on Broadway. The fingerprints of this seminal musical are felt all over our culture. In the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the character Yitzhak wore a Rent t-shirt, the CW show Riverdale features a cover of “Out Tonight,” and a viral remix of “Tango: Maureen” called “Tango: Vaccine” has been used to combat Covid vaccine misinformation. 

The musical has been performed in 25 languages and in more than 50 countries. In fact, it was the first Broadway musical to open in Cuba after sanctions between the country and the U.S. were lifted. A documentary about that 2014 production, Revolution Rent, became the second major documentary surrounding the musical. The first, No Day But Today: The Story of Rent, was released in 2006 to commemorate the adaptation of Rent into a film directed by Chris Colombus and starring much of the original cast.

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