Bruce Guthrie’s new production of Rent appears at the St. James Theatre this Christmas to mark the twentieth anniversary of the musical. With music, book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died just weeks before the world premiere in New York on 13 February 1996, it constitutes a retelling of La bohème as it places the action in New York City’s East Village in the 1990s. The work was highly acclaimed from the start, receiving four 1996 Tony Awards, but for opera fans interest may also lie in the parallels that are drawn between the settings of 1830s Paris and 1990s New York, as well as in the differences there are between the two stories.
Both settings lend themselves to a bohèmian culture, but while in the original poverty, which enables tuberculosis to take hold, is the big killer, in Rent it is AIDS. While La bohème focuses on just a few months from Christmas through to the darkest days of the continuing winter, Rent goes from one 24th December to the next. The difference is not merely one of time period. While La bohème may be predominantly emotion driven, it has a definite story as it examines the evolving relationships between Rodolfo and Mimì, and Marcello and Musetta. Rent is not lacking a story, but its focus on a slightly wider range of individuals over a longer period makes it more of a study in ‘a year in the life’ of these people.
Rodolfo becomes Roger, a musician who keeps strumming ‘Quando me’n vo’ on his guitar. He is grieving for his former love who contracted HIV and ended up committing suicide. Mimi (whose name does not change) is a club dancer and drug taker and although her first encounter with Roger does occur when her candle goes out, there is no gentle or subtle wooing on both sides. Rather she explicitly cracks onto him, revealing perhaps how gender relations have changed in the intervening 160 years. Marcello becomes Mark, a documentary filmmaker in love with Maureen (Musetta), a performance artist who also enjoys a relationship with Joanne. The latter, however, is no Alcindoro who only appears in one scene, but rather triumphs over Mark who essentially spends the rest of the musical alone.
Although Maureen has several solos in which she steals the limelight, the closest equivalent to ‘Quando me’n vo’ is actually the ‘Tango: Maureen’ which is sung not by her, but by Mark and Joanne when they meet. Instead of Maureen singing about how she turns everyone’s head, Mark and Joanne do so for her as they ‘symphathise’ with each other about the hold that she has over both of them.
Colline becomes Tom Collins and Schaunard his lover, the drag queen Angel Schunard. Café Momus might be identified in the bohèmian hangout Café Life, but it does not provide a strict equivalent. In fact, the magical start to the Momus scene, involving children and street sellers, is, if anything, parodied by seeing drug pushers, prostitutes and the homeless on the street. Here snow does not hand scenes a Christmas card perfection, but rather is the worst thing to arrive for cold and hungry people. Benoît is represented in Benjamin Coffin III, but again he is hardly a close equivalent and has a far larger part. Once a flatmate of Mark and Roger, he is now their landlord and is a property developer determined to destroy the bohèmian hangouts for profit.
Mimi overhears Roger telling Mark why he wishes to leave her far later in the musical and, while in the opera the moment shows him speaking the truth and explaining that he really loves her, here it only adds to her pain. The ending is also different (it would be a shame to give it away), but to the end there are subtle allusions to the opera. Collins neither sells his coat nor sings an equivalent to ‘Vecchia zimarra’ but he does remove it to place over Mimi to keep her warm.
In some ways Rent seems just as relevant as when it was first written, and in others it feels very much of its time. Every reference to ‘cyber-’ as a means of denoting cutting edge technology seems dated, as the term has essentially been replaced by the prefix ‘i-’. It is interesting, however, that in the twenty years since the musical’s creation productions of La bohème have, if anything, moved slightly closer towards it. For example, Benedict Andrews’ 2015 production for English National Opera saw Rodolfo and Mimì enjoy a drug-induced love, with it not being clear if Mimì died of tuberculosis or a heroin-related cause. Similarly, it is not unusual to see productions today suggest at least some form of attraction or relationship between Colline and Schaunard.
Nevertheless, for all that it is interesting to study the parallels between the two works, Rent should be taken on its own terms. Therefore, although a few La bohème aficionados who do not normally like musicals will find enough to engage them by comparing the two stories, overall it is a show to be recommended to fans of musical theatre because the music is in that style. The five-strong band places quite an emphasis on music technology, with amplification of both instruments and voices being integral to creating the overwhelming sound that speaks of bohèmian counter-culture. There are several excellent songs including the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’, the intriguing ‘Tango: Maureen’ and the moving ‘Your Eyes’, as well as numbers such as ‘What You Own’ that prove atmospheric by ensuring that the evening’s power and pace feel constantly driven.
The staging is also effective as it proves fairly slick while still ensuring that the proceedings carry a certain rough and ready feel, as befitting the subject matter. The auditorium of the St. James Theatre is quite steeply tiered, but here the eye looks down on Anna Fleischle’s multi-levelled set that consists mainly of ‘scaffolding’. Roger and Mark’s flat stands in the centre of the structure while the different platforms surrounding it are used to powerful effect to portray a creative and sometimes angst-ridden community. There are many strong performances and alongside Ross Hunter as Roger and Philippa Stefani as Mimi, standout turns come from Layton Williams as Angel whose dancing in ‘Today 4 U’ features some impressive acrobatics, and Lucie Jones as Maureen who throws herself completely into ‘Over The Moon’, which is virtually a parody of a piece of perfomance art. While it may not be to every opera-goer’s taste, taken on its own terms Rent is a great musical, and it is presented very strongly here.