Rent vs La Boheme – What’s the difference?

Lauryn Clarke (@­_laurynclarke) delves into the differences and similarities between Jonathan  Larson’s Rent and Puccini’s La Boheme on which it was loosely based.

boheme
(sources: La Boheme / Rent)

When looking at these two shows at first glance, everything seems different – performed for the first time 100 years away from each other, in a different language and in a different art form. I was lucky enough to have seen both the Welsh National Opera’s tour of La Boheme and the 20th anniversary National UK Tour of Rent recently and when think about them noticed both some interesting similarities as well as differences which I will talk about in this article, but be warned, spoilers ahead!

Let’s start with the most obvious – the time period. In his first and only newspaper interview Jonathan Larson noted that the opening of Rent on Broadway on 1st February 1996 was on the 100th anniversary of the first performance of La Boheme in Turin, Italy. Although this clearly influences each of the pieces, it doesn’t obstruct from certain plot pieces or themes being present in both such as friendship and love, life and death and work and rent.

rent
(Cast of the 20th anniversary UK National Tour of Rent, source)

This is one of the areas where you can clearly see the elements Larson took inspiration from and adapted, as well as what he changed to fit his musical. There are the same amount of main characters and most of them are the same gender apart from Joanne whom is based on Alcindoro but also slightly on Marcello who are both men. As Joanne is a mix of two characters it is obvious that her outcome in the end of Rent will be different to that of her two characters in La Boheme – whereas at the end of Rent Joanne is in a relationship with Maureen, at the end of La Boheme it is Marcello and Musetta (Mark and Maureen’s predecessors respectively) who end the opera in a relationship. Mimi is the character who is most similar to her predecessor with the same name and near enough the same plot throughout both pieces, although the one defining difference is that unlike in Rent, Mimi does indeed die at the end of La Boheme.  Other than Joanne, the rest of the characters in Rent have names that start with the same letter or are otherwise similar as shown below:

Rodolfo=Roger, Marcello=Mark, Schaunard=Angel Dumott Schunard, Colline=Tom Collins, Musetta=Maureen and Benoît=Benny

rodolfo
Rodolfo (left) and Marcello (source: Robert Wiseman via WNO)

Bringing back the century time difference, some of the characters have a difference in career. Marcello is a painter in La Boheme but when updating it for 1990s audience, Larson  changed Mark to be a filmmaker which would arguably more relatable for the audience of the time.  Some of the characters are similar in occupation such as Colline being a philosopher and Benoît being their landlord with the only large difference changing Mimi from a seamstress to an exotic dancer.  Again due to the time difference and Larson’s updating of the opera for a modern audience, the disease tuberculosis of which Mimi dies in La Boheme is changed to being HIV positive. This is one of the areas where it is clear Rent is only loosely based on La Boheme whilst being a zeitgeist of the time due to its portrayal of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s/90s – in Rent, not only Mimi but also Roger, Collins and Angel are HIV+ whereas in La Boheme only Mimi becomes sick.

 

But the most important similarity of all…

How much the audiences enjoyed it! With every performance I went to, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves which is the most important part! I talked to people in the intervals and after the shows and everyone was happy which truly shows the magic of theatre – that no matter what the show is, whatever style it is in or wherever it is, people are brought together and are made to feel by a show!

Have you guys seen any of these shows, or realised something I’ve missed? Let me know and join the conversation by either tweeting the MTAS account (@MTAS_Official) or me (@_laurynclarke), or joining us on our Facebook page here!

 

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