Rent and La Boheme
Woah, I’m posting again! It’s strange, I’ve written about a half-dozen half-posts that are all insanely more substantial than this one. Anyways, here’s just a fun rambling of me on Rent!
Today, I watched Rent again after what must be almost a decade. This was prompted by having watched La Boheme yesterday (at the Metropolitan Opera (vague thoughts on that below)) and then deciding I really did not want to do much today after work. About two minutes into the movie, I realized I was going to have a lot of thoughts on it, so, here’s a blog post covering a couple of those thoughts. I apologize in advance for the lack of organization here, this is pretty much just me jotting down all my thoughts in a quick rush. If you want to read some of my less intellectual thoughts on the movie, feel free to check out Twitter.
First off, wow, I’m so much grumpier than I once was… I don’t think think this is actually the first time I realized it, but it is absolutely amazing how much I fail to emphasize with the main characters here. I mean, the entire premise of this movie is that there is a group of artists who managed to get away with not paying rent for a year and then are absolutely grumpy because the landlord says they have to start paying rent. I mean, I’m already grumpy having to pay rent…but I really don’t think anyone deserves to get off rent-free just because they are “bohemian”… So, yeah, I’m the grumpy person. I’m bitter about them getting what looks like a pretty sizable apartment rent-free and I’m definitely grumpy about the fact that they are on the subway singing and disturbing passengers, I mean, what kind of person would actually take a stranger’s hat? (also, first side note, hats get stolen at least twice in this movie)
I had seen the opera once before, as a recording, and it honestly was nothing like seeing it in person yesterday. First of all, it was my first opera at the Metropolitan Opera (yeah, I know, took long enough), and it was impossible to not be absolutely in awe of the scale they worked at. When they opened the curtain on the second act, they had what seemed like an entire city on stage with multiple levels built up, multiple buildings you could see into. It was amazing. It made me think back to the way that in Phantom of the Opera they used some dummies onstage in order to make it look like the room was actually full. For this opera though, that was insanely unnecessary as the stage was completely and totally crowded due to the presence of real people. And that is before they brought an actual horse-drawn carriage onto the stage…or a marching band…yeah, it was crazy. I’m insanely impressed just having the chance to behold something at that scale.
One of the other amazing things about the opera was how much intermission time the Met gives you. At least a third of the entire time I was there was spent wandering around. It was a great chance to people watch, but honestly in general just made me wish I had gone with someone to chat with during those breaks. I had always been thinking of the opera as more of an activity to actually see the performance (the way I had at school), but it felt almost like it was there to play a more social role based on actually going.
Anyways, moving back to Rent for a bit, I think one of the coolest things is how much of a difference there was between some parts of the two and how similar they were in other ways. I actually almost did a class project on this in high school once (I totally could have justified this for World History, comparing all the adaptions of La Boheme) and think there is a ton that you can focus on for this. I want to just touch on a couple of the differences that really stood out to me this time watching through them though, so here goes!
First of all, there’s the way Mimi and Roger/Rodolfo have their first meeting. In both, Mimi walks in with a candle that needs to be relit and it is not long before some heavy flirting begins. In the opera though, it is Rodolfo who decides to blow out his candle to make her stay longer and then hide her key so she’ll stay even longer right before he starts professing his undying love. In Rent, Mimi never really had an actual candle problem and Roger only takes her heroin to try to help her (or at least that’s how I always saw it). It’s a continuous stream of watching Mimi try to come on to Roger and him being less than receptive, a far stretch from the original opera where they both declare they are in eternal love after only knowing the other person for about five minutes. On this point, the musical is far more believable, and I like the decision to add that conflict where Roger is struggling with whether he is comfortable being in love with anyone knowing that his death is approaching. When he finally comes around to deciding that he is willing to be with Mimi, I think it makes the moment a lot more emotional.
Oh, as a side note, a vaguely amusing piece of writing I remember from a long time ago: Light My Candle from Roger’s point of view. Reading it now, the writing sucks, but there are still a few funny quips in there.
In the middle of both stories (well, technically missing from the movie, but you have a nice deleted scene for those of us who need emotional roller coasters) you have Goodby Love (or, well, “Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina” if you are thinking of the Opera), a song that is equally emotional in both stories, but the exchange between Roger and Mark has a lot more emotion in Rent than the equivalent exchange in La Boheme. Personally, I think removing it and just having Roger having decided to leave without having that emotionally charged moment between him and Mimi removes a lot from the story. According to the commentary track (which I did not listen to this time but remember from many years ago) it was removed because there were too many funny points and miserable points mixed in and it confused audiences too much. I’d disagree, and say that that is life, and having that scene in there was crucial to the movie. (side note: opposite couples ended up reconciling at this point in Rent and La Boheme)
Finally, you have the end of the stories. In La Boheme, Mimi dies. Silently. Without anyone actually noticing. It just happens. That feels a bit real, and I absolutely applaud the way that was set. In Rent, Mimi “dies” with everyone surrounding here worrying about her, and everyone notices, but then she comes back to life with a tragic story of how Angel spoke to her in a dream. Now, ignoring the whole fact that Mimi is probably still pretty close to death and going to die from AIDS anyways, it’s supposed to be a powerful moment. I personally think that the ending with her death was better, but Rent already had the necessary tragic death, and I understand why the decision to have that hope was taken.
Going away from the arc of Mimi (I really love just being able to use one name here) for a bit, there are a couple huge character changes I also wanted to touch upon here briefly. First of all, the characters of Schaunard and Colline from La Boheme. They translate pretty closely to Angel and Colin in Rent, however, are clearly not in a relationship in the opera. By adding that extra dimension, Larson managed to have a much greater message than was ever in the source material. Having Angel die in the middle of the story was also a huge emotional tie to everything else that was happening and created a great point for the characters to rally together and realize what was happening in their lives. It gave Roger his excuse to consider his need to move to Santa Fe, and it did a great job of giving Mark a chance to reflect upon life as well (though, seriously, I don’t get why he had to quit his job).
Another lesser change is moving to having two Marcellos. In Rent, Mark was always my favourite character. I had to identify with him as the “techie” of the group (and so much more now…it used to annoy me to no end how he managed to fix all the problems instantly, but now I understand that’s really what it is like in the real world, I’m sorry for doubting). They also add Joanne who is in an actual relationship with Maureen throughout Rent. It was kind of sad watching Mark be alone throughout the whole thing (someone really needs to make a montage of awkward Mark being alone moments), I think getting to see the nice dynamic between Mark and Joanne was definitely worth it. You could still have Mark playing the part of the sad guy who will never actually get over Maureen (much closer to the role of Marcellos) while now getting a super powerful character in Joanne who would go head-to-head with Maureen over all her crazy stuff, call her out on things, and in general make sure we got a much more interesting show to watch.
Finally, I wanted to touch upon the increase in death that you see in Rent. While Mimi survives, the threat of death hangs over the characters so much more than in La Boheme. In La Boheme, while they are all starving artists, Mimi is the only one facing an actual threat of death hanging over her. This is another area where I believe Rent manages to add a lot of depth to an already incredibly emotional opera, moving it from conveying emotions about abstract concepts to the emotions being things that you are capable of somewhat relating to.
For the longest time, Rent was my absolute favourite musical. Even after it was no longer my favourite musical, when it was initially taken over by Wicked, I still absolutely loved the story. That slowly drifted away though as I started to realize that I identified more with Benny than with any of the actual bohemians. I still have a nearly unlimited level of respect for those in creative professions, but I can no longer believe that that allows them to feel the level of pity for themselves that you see in Rent. They have responsibilities they need to worry about, and I think that Rent does a great job of ignoring those.
Watching Rent again, the music was more amazing than I remember. I completely grok why it was my favourite musical for so long, even ignoring the fact that it probably just counts as my rebellious phase of being a teenager (hey, I was a pretty non-rebellious teenager). The story has so much emotion built into it, but it is sadly not in a way that I can identify with anymore.