La bohème vs. RENT

Musical theatre and opera alike share a common thread of storytelling through drama and music. It’s no secret that one of Broadway’s biggest hits, RENT, was inspired by Puccini’s score and the libretto of La bohème. Here are a few of the similarities and differences between the two shows in anticipation in our upcoming production!  

 The Setting/Bohemia:

“La bohème” literally means “Bohemia” in French and is the lifestyle that is highlighted in both works. RENT follows along with a lot of the same plot points and themes as the 1896 opera where – in both productions – we watch the lives of a group of artists struggle with poverty and disease, while still able to find love, happiness, friendship, and the act of creation. La bohème sets the scene in 19th Century Paris in the bitter cold of winter with our characters battling tuberculosis while RENT is set in 1990s New York City during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Jonathan Larson took the outline of La bohème and mixed it with personal circumstances surrounding his own life in NYC and friends who battled with AIDS to marry the two into the hit rock opera that made it to Broadway and a hit motion picture. 


 Mimì/Mimi Márquez:

This character is a seamstress in the opera and a dancer in the musical, but in both productions, she is captivatingly beautiful. She and Rodolfo/Roger fall in love at first sight – over the lighting of a candle that just doesn’t seem to stay lit – marking the beginning of a tumultuous relationship. They fight for months and end up separating, only to be brought back together by Mimi’s failing health. In La bohème, she succumbs to tuberculosis, while in Rent, even through AIDS, drug addiction, and homelessness the sound of Roger’s voice is enough to keep her alive. 

 Rodolfo/Roger Davis:

Changed from a poet in the opera to a musician/songwriter in RENT, this character is a romantic at heart. At the beginning of both shows, he is deeply lonely — so lonely that he sings about it — and only cheers up after meeting Mimi. He becomes jealous during their relationship due to his own need to feel loved, and in RENT he is still struggling over the loss of a previous lover. 

 While the opera’s storyline focuses mainly on Mimi and Rodolfo, RENT develops the other characters and offers additional love interests, conflict, and heart-wrenching resolutions.

 Musetta/Maureen Johnson:

So spirited that she earns her own dance (“Musetta’s Waltz” and “Tango: Maureen”), this character is a source of drama in both productions. In La bohème, she leaves Marcello for the rich and elderly Alcindoro. In Rent, she leaves Mark for Joanne, all while planning a protest against developments in her neighborhood. The big difference here is that she doesn’t end up with Mark in Rent; instead, she stays with her new girlfriend and cements her place as one of the best-known bisexual characters in pop culture. Musetta’s aria, Quando m’en vo, has become one of the most famous arias in all of opera and has even spilled over into other genres. 

We even see similarities in the words of Musetta’s/Maureen’s famous pieces:

The beginning lyrics of Quando m’en vo translate to:

When walking alone on the streets,
People stop and stare
And examine my beauty
From head to toe

The beginning lyrics of Take Me Or Leave Me:

Every single day,
I walk down the street
I hear people say ‘baby’s so sweet’
Ever since puberty, everybody stares at me

Marcello/Mark Cohen:

In La bohème, Marcello spends the majority of the show chasing after Musetta. But in Rent, Mark focuses all of his energy on his documentary, while trying to ignore and resolve his residual feelings for Maureen and trying to see past the heartache and disease around him by filming intimate moments between his friends. In doing so, he becomes the face of the Bohemian movement and the star of the show.

Colline/Tom Collins and Schaunard/Angel Dumott Schunard:

These two are relatively minor characters in La bohème, but Rent gives them a storyline of their own. Transformed from philosopher and musician to philosophy professor and percussionist/drag queen, respectively, Collins and Angel meet by chance at the beginning of the musical. They are romantically involved until Angel’s tragic death, which provides the heart-wrenching loss that you get from la bohème. Rather than staying in the backseat like their opera counterparts, Collins and Angel use the spotlight to send a message about HIV/AIDS and the lives of gay men in New York City.

There are countless other similarities between these works, from scripts and screenplays tossed into the fireplace to “light my candle,” the ultimate pick-up line. Don’t miss your chance to catch all these comparisons and more when La bohème hits the Saenger stage on Jan. 20th & 22nd! 

Some information courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

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