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.