Yup, that’s right. This week we explore Rent. La vie bohème!
Last week marked the 16 year anniversary of the opening of Rent, the 16 year anniversary of the passing away of Jonathan Larson the writer and composer, and yesterday marked the 116 year anniversary of the opening of La Bohème, the opera that Rent is based on. It seemed only fitting therefore that this week we throwback to this iconic musical. Let’s begin with the opera.
La Bohème was composed by Giacomo Puccini with the libretto, or text, a sort of combination between lyrics and dialogue, was written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa which was based on a novel by Henri Murger. It is set inParis around 1830 and follows the story of a poet, Rodolfo, who is in love with a seamstress, Mimi. Rodolfo is one of those jealous types and thinks Mimi is too flirtatious so he leaves her but he confesses to his friend Marcello that the real reason he left her is because Mimi is dying of tuberculosis and he knows that he cannot take care of her. Rodolfo hopes that Mimi will find a rich man to fall in love with so she can be taken care of properly.
Though Mimi finds a rich viscount, she is too much in love with Rodolfo and so she runs away. At the end of the opera she is brought to Rodolfo and Marcello’s home by Marcello’s former lover Musetta, who found her wondering the streets practically dead. As the others leave to pawn their most valued possessions to buy medicine, Rodolfo and Mimi reminisce about their love and their first meeting over a certain candle. The others return and a doctor has been summoned but it is too late. Mimi has slipped into unconsciousness and as Musetta prays, she dies.
Jonathan Larson and playwright Billy Aronson wanted to bring this story to the MTV generation. A generation of baby boomers looking for their place in the course of human history. Some call them Generation X. Larson lived in Lower Manhattan in the Village which was a hub of bohemian artistic culture as well as a front row seat to the growing homeless and AIDS problems. He worked weekends at the Moondance Diner and week days composing and writing. (Fun Fact: When he workshoped his show he held auditions in his kitchen that had the bath tub in the corner. This apartment had no heat and was on the fifth floor. Actually that’s not all that fun. The bath tub bit it pretty funny though.)
The title, Rent, was Larson’s idea and though Aronson wasn’t all that thrilled about it at first he went with it when Larson reminded him that “rent” also means “to be torn apart” (“Cause everything is rent!”). the project became Larson’s baby and he wanted to write about his own experiences so in 1991 he and Aronson agreed that Larson could make it his own project but if it went to Broadway Aronson would get a piece of the action.
After several years, stage readings, workshops, and rewrites the show we know as Rent, a rock opera, was completed. Rodolfo the poet became Roger the songwriter with HIV. Marcello the painter became Mark the indie film maker. Musetta the singer became Maureen the lesbian performance artist. Mimi kept her name but her occupation went from seamstress to S&M dancer and instead of TB she has AIDS. The other original characters, Schaudard the musician (Angel the gay drag queen percussionist who has AIDS), Colline the philosopher (Tom Collins the gay anarchist part time prof at NYU who also has AIDS), Alcidoro the state councilor (Joanne the lesbian lawyer), and Benoit the landlord (Benny the… well the landlord) were all given new lives and songs to sing. And though the original story remained ultimately unchanged, Larson managed to bring it to a modern world with a success not even he could have dreamed of.
Tragically, however, he never saw that success. In the early morning before opening, Larson died of an aortic dissection possibly caused by Marfan syndrome. The cast, which included Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, and Taye Diggs (all later cast in the movie which came out in 2005, 10 years after it opened in NYC) at first opted only to sing through the show that night, but by the time they got to the legendary high energy anthem of “La Vie Boheme” they couldn’t hold it in any longer. So they went wild and finished the production with the staging. Currently Rent is celebrating it’s first NYC revival at the New World Stage off-Broadway, the same home it opened in.
Rent has won several awards such as Best Musical, Best Book of Music, and Best Original Score, among others. Larson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well. It has helped build awareness for AIDS research. Every night during the Life Support meeting scene when the characters introduce themselves, it is tradition for the actors to say names of those they have lost to AIDS to honor their memories. It has also brought to this and future generations of people, Rent-heads, and artists alike, a look at what happens when the need to make art and the need to survive fight inside you. Who really wins that battle? For some it is the battle that means their doom (Van Gough, Vivaldi, Freddy Mercury, Kurt Cobain). Create or Die. I vote Create! Moo with me!!
Logo photo by Justine Impressions http://www.justineimpressions.com/