By Kristi Casey Sanders
Jonathan Larson based the book of the musical Rent on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Larson changed the setting of the story from 1830s Paris to New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1990s, substituted AIDS for tuberculosis and introduced homosexual characters into Puccini’s love triangles, but many details from the opera remain intact.
Both stories begin on Christmas Eve with two artists: Marcello/Mark and Rodolpho/Roger burning their work to keep warm. In both, a downstairs neighbor, Mimi, comes looking for a light for her candle. The first words of her Bohème aria are the last words of her first Rent song: “They call me Mimi.”
The main cast of characters are the same: Colline/Collins, a philosopher; Schaunard/Angel Schaunard, a composer/musician; Musetta/Maureen (Marcello/Mark’s former girlfriend); and Benoit/Benny, a despicable landlord. The main difference is that in Rent, Angel is Collins’ love interest, and, instead of a wealthy new boyfriend, Musetta/Maureen has a new girlfriend, Joanne — a Harvard-educated lawyer.
In both plays, however, artists have a hard time paying rent, musicians are hired to kill annoying pets, lovers are reluctant to fall in love, characters are fatally sick and barely rescued in the nick of time. Literary geeks (especially those familiar with Puccini’s source material, Henri Murger’s book Scènes de la vie bohème) will appreciate references to Collins’ coat and how “Musetta’s Waltz” underscores a crucial scene. Larson, however, injects a sense of hope into the end of Rent that is lacking in La Bohème, something everyone can appreciate.
Rent plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre April 25-27.