Renthead - Sources and Inspiration

Sources and Inspiration

Larson's inspiration for Rent's content came from several different sources. Many of the characters and plot elements are drawn directly from Giacomo Puccini's opera La bohème, the world premiere of which was in 1896, a century before Rent's premiere. La bohème was also about the lives of poor young artists. Tuberculosis, the plague of Puccini's opera, is replaced by HIV/AIDS in Rent; 1800s Paris is replaced by New York's East Village in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The names and identities of Rent's characters also heavily reflect Puccini's original characters, though they are not all direct adaptations. For example, Joanne in Rent represents the character of Alcindoro in Bohème, but is also partially based on Marcello. Also, Joanne is the only Rent character whose predecessor in La bohème is the opposite gender.

La bohème Rent
Mimi, a seamstress with tuberculosis Mimi Márquez, an erotic dancer with HIV
Rodolfo, a poet Roger Davis, a songwriter-musician who is HIV positive
Marcello, a painter Mark Cohen, an independent Jewish filmmaker and Roger's roommate
Musetta, a singer Maureen Johnson, a lesbian performance artist
Schaunard, a musician Angel Dumott Schunard, a gay drag queen percussionist with AIDS
Colline, a philosopher Tom Collins, a gay, part-time philosophy professor at New York University and anarchist with AIDS
Alcindoro, a state councilor Joanne Jefferson, a lesbian lawyer, who is Maureen's girlfriend. (Also partially based on Marcello)
Benoit, a landlord Benjamin 'Benny' Coffin III, the local landlord and a former roommate of Roger, Mark, Collins, and Maureen.

Other examples of parallels between Larson's and Puccini's work include Larson's song "Light My Candle", which is nearly identical to the first scene between Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, "Quando me n'vo (Musetta's Waltz)", a melody taken directly from Puccini's opera, and "Goodbye Love", a long, painful piece that reflects a confrontation and parting between characters in both Puccini's and Larson's work. "Quando me n' vo' " is paralleled in the first verse of "Take Me or Leave Me," when Maureen describes the way people stare when she walks in the street. It is also directly referred to in the scene where the characters are celebrating their bohemian life. Mark says, "Roger will attempt to write a bittersweet, evocative song..." Roger plays a quick piece, and Mark adds, "...that doesn't remind us of 'Musetta's Waltz'."

Rent is also a somewhat autobiographical work, as Larson incorporated many elements of his life into his show. Larson lived in New York for many years as a starving artist with an uncertain future. He sacrificed a life of stability for his art, and shared many of the same hopes and fears as his characters. Like his characters he endured poor living conditions, and some of these conditions (e.g. illegal wood-burning stove, bathtub in the middle of his kitchen, broken buzzer ) made their way into the play. Part of the motivation behind the storyline in which Maureen leaves Mark for a woman (Joanne) is based on the fact that Larson's own girlfriend left him for a woman. The Mark Cohen character is based on Larson's friend, documentary filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein.

Playwright Sarah Schulman alleged that Rent bore striking similarities to her novel People in Trouble.

The line, "I'm more of a man than you'll ever be... and more of a woman than you'll ever get!", attributed to Angel Dumott Schunard at his funeral, was previously used by the character Hollywood Montrose, who appeared in the films Mannequin (1987) and Mannequin Two: On the Move (1991). Like Angel, Hollywood is a flamboyantly homosexual man who performs a song and dance number and sometimes wears women's clothing; however, the line was originally in the film Car Wash (1976), delivered by Antonio Fargas as a flamboyant homosexual cross dresser.

The earliest concepts of the characters differ largely from the finished products. Everyone except Mark had AIDS, including Maureen and Joanne; Maureen was a serious, angry character who played off Oedipus in her performance piece instead of Hey Diddle Diddle; Mark was, at one point, a painter instead of a filmmaker; Roger was named Ralph and wrote musical plays; Angel was a jazz philosopher, while Collins was a street performer; Angel and Collins were both originally described as Caucasian; and Benny had a somewhat enlarged role in the story, taking part in songs like "Real Estate", which was later cut.

Many actual locations and events are included in, or are the inspiration for, elements of the musical. The Life Café, where the "La Vie Boheme" numbers are set, is an actual restaurant in the East Village of New York City. The riot at the end of the first act is based on the East Village conflicts of the late 1980s that arose as a result of the city-imposed curfew in Tompkins Square Park.

"Will I?", a song which takes place during a Life Support meeting and expresses the pain and fear of living a life with AIDS, was inspired by a real event. Larson attended a meeting of Friends in Deed, an organization that helps people deal with illness and grief, much like Life Support. After that first time, Larson attended the meetings regularly. During one meeting, a man stood up and said that he was not afraid of dying. He did say, however, that there was one thing of which he was afraid: Would he lose his dignity? From this question stemmed the first line in the single stanza of this song. The people present at the Life Support meeting in the show, such as Gordon, Ali, and Pam carry the names of Larson's friends who died of AIDS. In the Broadway show, the names of the characters in that particular scene (they introduce themselves) are changed nightly to honor the friends of the cast members who are living with or have died from AIDS.

The scene and song "Life Support" was also based on Friends in Deed, as well as on Gordon, Pam, and Ali. Originally, the members of Life Support had a solid block of the "forget regret" refrain, and they talked about remembering love. When Jonathan's HIV positive friends heard this scene, they told him that having AIDS was not so easy to accept: it made you angry and resentful too, and the song did not match that. Jonathan then added a part where Gordon says that he has a problem with this "credo...my T-cells are low, I regret that news, okay?" Paul, the leader of the meeting, replies, "Okay...but, Gordon, how do you feel today?" Gordon admits that he is feeling the best that he has felt all year. Paul asks, "Then why choose fear?" Gordon says, "I'm a New Yorker. Fear's my life."

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