BLOG: Connections between La bohème and Rent

La bohème, which was originally based on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie Bohème (Scenes from the bohemian life), features a sweeping, romantic score and timeless storyline that have made it become one of the most frequently produced operas ever. It has also been an inspiration to artists around the world. One of those artists was celebrated playwright and songwriter Jonathan Larson, who based his musical Rent on the opera. Rent, which opened on Broadway in 1996, features major characters and thematic and musical material based on Giacomo Puccini’s original work. It’s no wonder it won four Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize after it opened.  

The most obvious parallel between the two shows are the names of the characters in each show: 

  • Mimì, a seamstress → Mimi Márquez, an exotic dancer 
  • Rodolfo, a poet → Roger Davis, a rock musician 
  • Marcello, a painter → Mark Cohen, a filmmaker 
  • Musetta, a singer → Maureen Johnson, a performance artist 
  • Schaunard, a musician → Angel Dumott Schunard, a drummer and drag queen 
  • Colline, a philosopher → Tom Collins, a philosophy professor 
  • Benoit, a landlord → Benjamin “Benny” Coffin, a landlord 

La bohème centers on a group of artists – a poet, a painter, a musician, a philosopher, a singer, and a seamstress – struggling to scrape together a living in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Larson’s musical follows the travails of a filmmaker, a rock musician, a dancer, a philosophy professor, and a percussionist/drag queen in Manhattan. 

Both groups of artists are beset by economic hardship and illness and must fight to make their way in the world. Just as La bohème opens on Rodolfo and Marcello struggling to stay warm by burning pages of Rodolfo’s latest work, Rent begins with their counterparts Roger and Mark dealing with similar problems – their power has gone out and they are unable to pay their landlord, Benny. Just as Mimì’s tuberculosis threatens her relationship with Rodolfo in La bohème, Rent centers on Mimi and Roger struggling to decide whether to stay together despite both being HIV positive – a disease that affects multiple members of the group. 

There are also several musical references to La bohème in Larson’s songwriting. The most notable example is the song “Light My Candle,” which plays a similar role in the plot to Puccini’s aria “Che gelida manina” (“Take my hand”) – it’s during this number in each show that the primary couple (Rodolfo and Mimì/Roger and Mimi) meet and fall in love. In Rent, Mimi even ends the song with by singing “They call me Mimi,” aligning perfectly with her La bohème counterpart responding to Rodolfo with an aria of her own “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimì”). Larson also draws upon the famous “Quando men vo” (better known as “Musetta’s Waltz”) throughout Rent, like directly quoting the main melody and name-dropping Puccini’s aria during the song “La Vie Boheme.” 

Join us for La bohème, on stage at the Ordway in downtown Saint Paul from May 4-19! 

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