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What are the Similarities Between Rent and La Boheme?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The 1996 rock-opera Rent is loosely based on the Puccini opera La Boheme of a century before. Composer and writer Jonathan Larson wished to update the setting and story of the classic opera to modern day, in order to tell a story of the tragedies of bohemian existence in America. While many plot details and themes are changed from the inspirational source, Rent and La Boheme possess many connecting similarities, which enriches performances of the modern musical for fans of the original opera.

Rent and La Boheme are both set in cities considered as havens for artists, New York and Paris. The reality behind the romantic tourist images of both cities are clearly proved false by the two stories. In early scenes in Rent and La Boheme, characters are forced to burn manuscript pages in order to stay warm, not being able to afford firewood, or in the modern version, the heating bills.

Both Rent and La Boheme describe the devastation of a disease considered a feature of lower-class or artistic existence. In La Boheme one of the main characters, Mimi, is afflicted with tuberculosis, a deadly and highly infective disease still common throughout the world today. In Rent the plague is AIDS, and has spread to many of the characters, half of whom are infected with the illness.

Many character names in Rent and La Boheme are similar or identical, and modern characters often share similar, though updated, jobs. Musetta, in the original opera, is a flamboyant singer. Her modern counterpart, Maureen, is a performance artist who uses song as part of her repertoire. Mimi has the same name in both Rent and La Boheme, but is a seamstress afflicted with tuberculosis in the original, while in the modern version she is a stripper infected with AIDS.

Musically, Rent and La Boheme share many similarities in style and theme. The well-known "Musetta’s Waltz" from La Boheme is repeated several times throughout Rent, finally forming the basis of the song Your Eyes. Both shows frequently rely on recitative singing, a form of rapid dialogue exchange in song, to show people arguing or heated discussions.

One of the closest similarities between the two shows occurs early on, when Mimi meets and is attracted to one of the main characters, called Rodolfo in the opera and Roger in Rent. The meeting occurs under near identical circumstances, as Mimi knocks at the door, hoping to receive a match for her burned-out candle. Some of the dialogue between the two characters is actually the same, as they fumble to find matches and discover they like one another. However, the Rent version follows its considerably darker tone, with Roger remembering seeing Mimi stripping and realizing she needs the candle for drug use.

Rent and La Boheme both focus on the plight of artists in cities that are reputed to celebrate them. Both shows focus on the poverty and dangers of a life lived away from conventional standards, but Rent shows an even bleaker existence in 20th century New York. Many theater critics consider the experience of Rent heightened by familiarity with the original opera, although both pieces have come to be considered individual masterpieces of their genres.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseTour. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon187010 — On Jun 16, 2011

I myself am a musician. I teach music for a living, but that was a second career, after time spent on other pursuits. During that time, I was poor and almost homeless for some time. With a stable life, a house, a car, and the ability to pay all my bills, I look back now and while I appreciate what I have, I feel tied down, and sometimes that breaks my artistic spirit -- being tied down, that is. When I watched Rent, I saw the sorrow -- some of which I have experienced myself. But I also saw beauty. Collins got canned, but picked up another job. Angel made money how she was able. Benny, though financially better off, still had this studio in the back of his mind. There is a certain beauty to reality. There is a certain beauty to hardship.

When things are happy all the time, happiness loses its appeal. We could not appreciate life without death. We could not appreciate love without hatred or at least indifference. Yin and yang. Balance. These things all comprise the human spirit, and it is these things that are beautiful in Rent and La Boheme. I tell my own story only to accentuate that even as I am happy now, I still look back with longing when I see this musical and am reminded of my more difficult times. There was a simplicity and its accompanying beauty to that life -- living for today (no day but today!).

So in that sense, Rent, while dark, is not as dark as the surface would appear. --Rob, the music teacher and respectable bohemian at heart

By cafe41 — On May 20, 2011

@Moldova - I know what you mean, but a lot of people like realistic portrayals like that no matter how dark the material gets. Some people identify with the characters and the suffering that they had to go through just to live their lives day to day.

The Rent musical may not be an easy musical to watch but it does offer an experience into the lives of artists that most people would never become aware of.

In a way it is educating people to a way of life that they may not be familiar with and allowing them to develop an appreciation for the artistic culture and the struggles that they may have. These tragedies like Rent and La Boheme teach us what is really important in life.

By Moldova — On May 18, 2011

@Keti - I am not sure. I just wanted to say that while I understand the popularity of “Rent” the musical, I find the story a little too gritty for my taste.

I know that there is a lot of suffering in the world and struggling artists may have a different reality that we all need to be made aware of, but I think that I prefer a more upbeat type of show.

I understand that the musical was critically acclaimed and it was supposed to be a wonderful work of art, but I don’t want to be depressed when I go to a show.

It is the same reason why I don’t watch the news anymore. I think that there is enough bad news in the world and when I am looking for entertainment I really want something more cheerful and uplifting.

By keti — On Aug 10, 2008

I wonder, what, if anything, the Sirens have got to do with Jazz?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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