by Nicholas Tristan
Okay, first things first: I know it’s trendy to hate on RENT. A Broadway-smash when it popped up in the mid-90s, RENT introduced 1980s East Village counter-culture to a wider bourgeois theatre-going audience. These heady premiere days and RENT’s place in the 90s zeitgeist could only last so long, though, and RENT has seen its reputation plummet -- especially since Chris Columbus’ abysmal 2005 film adaption. And oh, it’s abysmal.
While I was a big fan of the musical in high school (listen, gay theatre kids will be gay theatre kids), I can’t say that I disagree with the tidal wave of backlash. RENT sucks: it’s muddled thematically, the characters are self-absorbed nightmares, it’s downright offensive in some regards, and though it has some pretty songs others are absolute dogshit. It’s a mess, and the definitive takedown of both the film and the stage show remains Lindsay Ellis’ “Look Pretty And Do As Little As Possible”, to which this little essay owes a lot. Go watch that if you want a professional, comprehensive analysis of the show's myriad flaws.
Jonathan Larson, the musical’s lyricist and composer, was a talented artist, I’m not calling him a hack. I’m partial to his other musical, Tick...Tick...Boom!, which is a sort of All That Jazz for the starving artist set, as well as a semi-autobiographical look toward his ambivalence to the musical he was concurrently working on that would become a smash hit immediately after his death from cancer a few years later: RENT. And I’ll be giving Larson some props throughout this essay for good wordplay, use of flow, some genuinely clever lines. As a whole? Yikes bikes, Jonathan. Yikes bikes.
Amid all of RENT’s flaws in plot and characterization and dissonant tone and staging, the song “La Vie Boheme” manages to stand out as a particularly egregious example of what makes the musical so tone-deaf and ill-conceived.
Being a pedant and a miserable person who hates joy, I decided to dive head in and take a look at “La Vie Boheme”, line-by-line, and dissect its unique awfulness.
Some context for those who haven’t seen RENT: this number occurs when our main characters engage in a confrontation with landlord and developer Benny. Benny is the former roommate of Mark and Roger, two of the show’s starving artist protagonists, who now owns the building they live in and has allowed them to live there rent-free for the past year. Benny has now reneged on this promise and is asking for Mark and Roger to pay a year’s back rent, which is pretty terrible. They did have an agreement, and Benny went back on it, so Mark and Roger’s anger is morally justified and doesn’t make for a horrible starting point for the story. The complaint of “Oh RENT is about whiny people who don’t wanna pay rent” isn’t totally accurate.
Benny is also planning to evict a group of homeless people living in a vacant lot he owns (none of these homeless people are named characters, by the way), so he can build a “cyber-studio” there. This is both a cartoonishly evil plan and something that happens all the time in real life, but what the hell is a “cyber-studio”? I guess him building luxury condos may have made the RENT audience uncomfortable.
“La Vie Boheme”’s confrontation occurs after Maureen, another of of the bohemian protagonists, has performed the world’s worst piece of performance art in support of keeping the lot from being sold (to be fair: the musical is more explicit that it’s supposed to be garbage than the film is). The bohemian gang, all riled up after such a thrilling display of mediocre avant-garde, roll into the Life Cafe. Here’s where we’ll begin my line-by-line breakdown of the terribleness of “La Vie Boheme”:
No, please no
Not tonight, please no
Mister, can't you go?
Not tonight, can't have a scene
Go, please go
You -- Hello, sir! --
I said no
Something I do kind of like about RENT is almost everyone in periphery to these characters seems to absolutely hate them. The group enters the restaurant and are immediately asked to leave by the waiter. This isn’t a snooty restaurant or anything, it’s just a local bar. They’ve obviously been awful there in the past.
What am I, just a blur?
You sit all night, you never buy!
That's a lie, that's a lie!
I had a tea the other day
You couldn't pay
Again, like I said, sometimes I will give Larson credit. This is funny -- it shows the exasperation the rest of the community has for these faux-boho trust fund douchebags. Real shame about how the rest of the song completely undercuts this.
Benjamin Coffin III? Here?
Wine and beer!
The enemy of Avenue A
The gang notices Benny (Benjamin Coffin III, so he is apparently from money) and some other suits and decide they will make a scene. Love the local flavour of the waiter saying “Oy vey” too -- only in New York, baby!
What brings the mogul in his own mind
To the Life Cafe?
I would like to propose a toast
To Maureen's noble try
It went well
Go to Hell
Was the yuppie scum stomped?
Not counting the homeless
How many tickets weren't comped?
Benny gets in a couple jabs about how Maureen’s performance art did absolutely nothing. By the way, in the original Broadway production, film, and most subsequent revivals Benny is played by a black man -- notably avatar of human perfection Taye Diggs in the original Broadway cast and film. Mark, Roger, and Maureen are all white. This mean the side-plot about gentrification is centered on a black man pricing white people from wealthy backgrounds (and we know they’re from wealthy backgrounds from things like Maureen’s wedding and the truly heartbreaking “phone calls from parents” interludes) out of their homes. This is not really a functional reality of New York real estate, let’s put it that way, and it’s bizarre Larson and the producers chose to frame it in this way.
There are other protagonists who are actually people-of-colour: Mimi, Roger’s angelic/toxic HIV-positive stripper love interest; Collins, a gay anarchist techno-philosopher; Angel, a loveable free spirit who desperately wants to avoid conflict between her friends; and Joanne, who is Maureen’s straight-laced lawyer girlfriend that Maureen treats abysmally. Joanne is probably the only person in the entire play who doesn’t do something downright shitty. I like Joanne. She has zero bearing on the larger plot of the musical. Perhaps these two things are connected.
The problem is, none of these people have anything to do with the gentrification subplot. There is the chorus of homeless people, but they’re just that: an unnamed mass that Maureen says she cares about, but after her performance they never come up again.
Why did Muffy--
--miss the show?
There was a death in the family
If you must know
[BENNY, MARK, ANGEL, COLLINS]
This is payoff to an early joke in the show where Angel tells a story about how she murders a dog named Evita on contract. This is, of course, totally fine and not considered selling out in the same way “getting a job” or “paying rent” is.
This also did originate in La Boheme, the opera on which RENT is loosely based, so RENT doesn’t fully take the blame here. And, hey: “Today For You” is a good song. Moving on.
Mimi, I'm surprised
A bright and charming girl like you
Hangs out with these slackers
Who don't adhere to deals
They make fun, yet I'm the one
Attempting to do some good
Or do you really want a neighborhood
Where people piss on your stoop every night?
A fallacy in your head
This is Calcutta
Bohemia is dead
Benny rationalizes his actions here, but mostly this sets up that he knows Mimi from elsewhere. This is important because later on in the show they date so this makes it...foreshadowed. Sigh.
We gather here to say our goodbyes
[COLLINS & ROGER]
Dies irae, dies illa
Here she lies
No one knew her worth
The late great daughter of Mother Earth
On this night when we celebrate the birth
In that little town of Bethlehem
We raise our glass
You bet your ass, to
La vie Bohème
Okay, preamble out of the way, on to the fucking song itself!
This little section is a mock funeral processional, sung with faux gravitas as well as prayers in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. This is meant to mock Benny’s assertion that their Bohemian ideals are outdated and don’t fit within his conception of modern New York. So, let’s find just why Benny is wrong -- through song!
(Also, this is literally the final edit I'm making on this -- what the hell do those last lines of Mark's mean? They are total gibberish. Anyway.)
La vie Bohème
La vie Bohème
La vie Bohème
La vie Bohème
To days of inspiration
Making something out of nothing
The need to express
To going against the grain
RENT romanticizes a lot of things -- poverty, starving for your art, illness to a degree (even an illness that was in its pandemic stage at the time: HIV and AIDS), and this song just piles it on. Going insane, going mad! That’s what the good artists do, right? You read about Van Gogh and Beethoven and Goya and all these brilliant people who started to lose it, that’s so cool! That’s so awesome! That’s why you don’t return your parents’ phone calls and live in a loft with no heat.
Fuck you, RENT.
To loving tension, no pension
To more than one dimension
To starving for attention
Not to mention, of course
Hating dear old Mom and Dad
Ah yes, hating pretension. Please go back one scene and watch Maureen’s performance art and tell me that’s not pretentious. Also, this whole song is a pretension -- it’s literally a list of things that these people enjoy because they are bohemian, and to like these things makes them bohemian. It’s as affected as you can get.
Throughout the musical Mark’s mom leaves him voicemails that say she loves him and misses him and worries about him. We don’t really know his relationship or past with his parents, but that line combined with the voicemails just make Mark seem like a complete asshole. Fuck you, Mark.
To riding your bike
Midday past the three-piece suits
To no absolutes
To The Village Voice
To any passing fad
To being an us, for once
Instead of a them
Absolut is a brand of vodka owned by international alcohol conglomerate Pernod Ricard, and it is also the third highest selling single alcoholic beverage in the world. Very bohemian.
For years I thought the lyrics were “to no absolutes/to absolutes/to choice”, which encapsulates the freedom of bohemian living -- you can live a life of absolutes, that’s your choice. But no, it’s a reference to a brand. Moving on.
*I cut some dialogue stuff, but Joanne and Maureen kiss and Mr. Grey, a suit sitting at the table with Benny, looks scandalized*
She's my sister
I’ve always liked this part. It’s cute, and it’s got a nice payoff down the line. Take that. Mr. Grey!!
[MIMI & ANGEL]
To hand-crafted beers made in local breweries
To yoga, to yogurt, to rice and beans and cheese
To leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo
To huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou
This is the part of the song where they just start listing, uh, stuff. Other than leather and dildos this is extremely common food found literally across the US, even in 1995.
Props to Jonathan Larson for seeing the craft beer boom coming, though.
[MAUREEN & COLLINS]
Emotion, devotion, to causing a commotion
[MAUREEN & COLLINS]
Compassion, to fashion, to passion
When it's new
To anything taboo
The line here that works the best here for me is “To anything taboo”, because while it’s clunky it actually ties into the idea of some kind of radicalism. Sondheim? Behind Lloyd-Webber, he’s the most famous and revered writer of musical theatre in the world. Susan Sontag is sort of controversial, I guess, but any random kid across America going to a state college is probably gonna read her. This song just takes things a typical Broadway audience will recognize, likely also consume and enjoy themselves, and then pats them on the back and calls them radicals while they’re sitting in their $450 seats.
[COLLINS & ROGER]
Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham, and Cage
To the stage
Another thing I don’t really like about the song is that it only half-heartredly pairs the characters with what they’re singing about -- it’s possible Roger as a dirtbag rock songwriter loves the work of avant garde choreographer Merce Cunningham and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, but...it also sort of seems like they’re just listing names because it’s their turn. It also feels like a lot of these names are the people that, say, someone who writes Broadway musicals would be into. Hmm.
When I saw RENT staged the actress playing Maureen said “To the stage!” in such a hilariously over the top dramatic way that it sold the line for me. Maureen is kind of a fun character is you lean into her awfulness. And she is awful. Fuck you, Maureen.
Pablo Neruda, too
[MARK & MIMI]
Why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow
To blow off Auntie Em
I appreciate the reference to Uta Hagen, but I gotta wonder how many starving artists were talking about her in late-80s Alphabet City. Ah well, it’s a half-rhyme with Buddha so here we are.
The whole point of The Wizard of Oz is Dorothy wants to get back home because she loves Kansas and her family. The Wicked Witch is played by the same actress as the woman who was menacing Auntie Em’s livelihood at the beginning of the movie. Dorothy wants to go home the entire time because she misses her family and is worried about them.
There is a later voicemail where Mark’s mom refers to herself as the Wicked Witch, so there’s gotta be some background with Mark and the The Wizard of Oz. Ah, who cares. Fuck you, Mark.
(MAUREEN and JOANNE kiss)
(MAUREEN and JOANNE move to the side to reveal ANGEL and COLLINS kissing)
[ANGEL, COLLINS, MARK, MR. GREY]
Hey, it’s the payoff! Angel and Collins are in a relationship, and it’s the only relationship in the entire show that isn’t toxic to some degree. Also, though I’ve been referring to Angel using she/her pronouns up to this point in the essay, Angel herself switches between male and female pronouns. Just so there’s no confusion. I’m not gonna criticize this -- pronoun switch uncommon today, and pronoun fluidity among crossdressers and trans folk was if anything more pronounced in the 80s and 90s. Larson, despite some of his faults when it comes to writing queer characters as a straight man, was connected in the queer scene and never comes off as hateful or even really ignorant. He’s equally bad at writing straight characters.
[MARK, ANGEL, MIMI & THREE OTHERS]
Bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens
Carcinogens, hallucinogens, men
German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein
Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa
Okay, lots in this little bit -- first off: trisexuals. I’ve thought about this line a lot, gone back and forth on it, and I think it’s Larson’s endorsement of sexual openness and fluidity. Moving on!
Carcinogens, hallucinogens, hell even turpentine: yes. These are drugs, they’re outside the accepted limits of society, they’re counter-cultural. Turpentine is a weird one to include and even carcinogens is a weird way to think about it, but there’s an element of danger there. We are in the realm of the boho, here.
“Men” is a placeholder word so we get the Pee-Wee Herman line (oddly enough, one of the only contemporary references in the whole song. We’ll get to that later), but it allows people staging the show to be creative. The production I saw had one of the chorus members, a man in a dress, deliver it -- a statement that men can dress however they want. That works for me.
I have a personal theory that Larson wanted to use the rhyme “German wine” and “Gertrude Stein” in a song and never could, because I cannot think of a single goddamn reason why corking some Gewurztraminer is bohemian. It’s a great rhyme, though, so it flows by without arousing too much ire.
Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa: this is the first time that a line of three people have been so closely connected thematically in the entire song. For one thing, they’re all film directors, so that’s a nice connecting point. Antonioni and Bertolucci were the vanguards of the Italian New Wave of the 1960s, and when their work broke in the US in in arthouse and university theatres the earlier masterworks of Akira Kurosawa followed; generally they can be categorized together in some areas of film history, especially looking at American reaction to foreign film. Isn’t that interesting? Not really.
Carmina Burana. Oh, fucking hell. Carmina Burana is a cantata by mid-20th century German composer Carl Orff that takes texts from the Carmina Burana, a collection of 11th and 12th century Latin and High German epic poems, and uses a large orchestra and a massive number of singers to create a sprawling, grandiose mythologizing of European history. Do you see where I’m going with this? It turns out Carl Orff was a literal Nazi. He had to be “de-Nazified” after the war. The Nazis loved Carmina Burana because it told of a strong, dominant Europe of legend untainted by the forces of outside degeneracy.
Nothing like a fascist cantata to show those uptight squares, huh?
To apathy, to entropy, to empathy, ecstasy
Vaclav Havel, The Sex Pistols, 8BC
To no shame, never playing the Fame Game
Larson’s talent for lyric and flow comes out in this section - apathy, entropy, empathy, ecstasy. The internal rhyme, combined with the rhythm of the words, seems very simple but shows great care and attention to detail.
So we’re off Uta Hagen, Carmina Burana, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham and get some references that would be a little more contemporary to 1989 East Village dirtbags. Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and anti-communist dissident, was definitely a cause celebre internationally around this time. In 1993, two years before RENT premiered, he was elected as the first ever President of the Czech Republic. The Sex Pistols are considered one of the early arbiters of punk and have not been particularly out of fashion since they debuted. 8BC was a nightclub and performance venue in the East Village that was known for its eclectic mix of lowbrow and highbrow acts; this is by far the deepest cut in the song, and probably one of the most accurate as to what these characters would really be talking about.
But remember: don’t sell out! Oh, and pot, sure.
It's between God and me
To S & M
Waiter... Waiter... Waiter!
La vie Bohème
This part is a little cringeworthy in both the show and the movie as the important suit Mr. Grey is pretty much dropping his monocle in horror at the concept of sodomy and S&M, but I do really like the line “To sodomy, it’s between God and me” so let’s call this a wash.
In honor of the death of bohemia, an impromtu salon will commence immediately following dinner. Mimi Marquez, clad only in bubble wrap will perform her famous lawn chair-handcuff dance to the sounds of iced tea being stirred
And Mark Cohen will preview his new documentary about his inability to hold an erection on high holy days
Maureen Johnson, back from her spectacular one-night engagement at the eleventh street lot, will sing Native American tribal chants backwards through her vocoder, while accompanying herself on the electric cello, which she has never studied
So they’re sort of poking fun at themselves here, I guess, but they literally did just come from Maureen’s show that is exactly like this AND Mark’s documentary turns out terrible AND Roger is an awful songwriter so I honestly don’t know if this is self-awareness or just some jokey jokes.
Your new boyfriend doesn't know about us
There's nothing to know
Don't you think that we should discuss --
It was three months ago
He doesn't act like he's with you
We're taking it slow
Where is he now?
He's right -- Hmm
Where'd he go?
Blah blah blah Benny and Mimi used to date, Mimi is more into Roger than he is into her. Roger is pushing Mimi away because he’s a recovering addict who lost his last girlfriend to suicide when she discovered they’re both HIV-positive, and Mimi is addicted to heroin and wants Roger to shoot up with her. He doesn’t know she’s HIV-positive. Anyway, I hate literally everything about how the Mimi and Roger plot is handled and staged, pleased go watch Lindsay’s video for a very good deconstruction of what makes Mimi such a terrible person and why both the show and film seem to vilify Roger for it.
And Roger will attempt to write a bittersweet, evocative song
(Roger picks up a guitar and plays)
That doesn't remind us of "Musetta's Waltz"
Hey, that’s from La Boheme! Our biggest lampshading moment. Roger’s song does end up having the main melody of “Musetta’s Waltz” in it though, so whatever. This song tries so hard to be self-aware but just raises more questions than it answers.
Angel Dumott Schunard will model the latest fall fashions from Paris while accompanying herself on the 10 gallon plastic pickle tub
And Collins will recount his exploits as anarchist, including the tale of the successful reprogramming of the M.I.T. virtual reality equipment to self-destruct, as it broadcasts the words:
"Actual Reality - ACT UP - Fight AIDS!"
Collins was kicked out of M.I.T. and fired from teaching at NYU for his “theory of Actual Reality”, which is never expanded upon. It seems to have to do with HIV/AIDS in some way based on this line, ACT UP being some of the most strident and fierce activists at the time. Please watch the fantastic documentary How To Survive A Plague to learn more about ACT UP because they were, and are, extremely awesome.
But -- what is Actual Reality? Collins is a hacker as well as a philosopher, so I wonder if it’s related to something like John Parry Barlow’s Electronic Frontier Foundation? Or a critique of corporate machinations and interconnectivity like the cyberpunk works of William Gibson? Ah, who cares. It’s probably better if it’s kept deliberately vague.
Okay, so the rest of the song has Mimi and Roger discovering they are both HIV-positive so now they can be together (as if that was the only problem with them up until this point), and I won’t go into that in detail, but rather look at just one moment from it.
Roger discovers Mimi’s HIV-positive status when she needs to take an “AZT break”. AZT, or azidothymidine, was at the time RENT is set the only effective HIV medication that had been approved by the FDA and was available for sale in the US. It was also, extremely, extremely expensive -- it carried about a $750/month pricetag (over $1,500 in today’s money), and turned out to be extremely toxic to a lot of the users. Part of ACT UP’s direct action was confronting drug companies and the FDA to get AZT cheaper, and more drugs on the market. These things happened, but not until the 1990s.
So, yeah, it’s possible Mimi is on AZT. Maybe she could afford it somehow, Benny buys it for her, who knows. But to have the characters popping AZT with ease and not address the structural issues in the HIV/AIDS pandemic at all undercuts the real horrors that happened -- people were dying because they couldn’t these access these drugs, and people couldn’t access these drugs because of malicious, intentional decisions made by those in power. Fuck you, Ronald Reagan.
La Boheme, the original opera, is a story of people living in tragic conditions, the beautiful Mimi succumbing to consumption because the rest of proper society doesn’t care. RENT is a story of several point-of-view characters engaging in misery tourism so they can suffer for their art. The brunt of the social criticism of the musical is directed at a wealthy black man who wants to build a cyber-studio, and it stops there. Nothing structural, nothing social, just a greedy individual. That’s RENT. That’s “La Vie Boheme”.
Is this the fairest criticism to end on? A searing indictment of the sanitization of a pandemic for a slick Broadway production? Probably not, let’s bring this back to the song to wrap it all up.
“La Vie Boheme” tells me way more about Jonathan Larson than it does any of these characters. Looking back on his lyrics to West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim talks about feeling a twinge of embarrassment for all the heightened, Shakespearean affections the lyrics contain, something that composer Leonard Bernstein essentially mandated as part of his vision. Street kids don’t talk like this, why would they sing like this?
Stylized lyrics, of course, aren’t a bad thing. Not every musical needs to be a realistic look into a world, or a community. But everything about RENT does scream “this is a realistic look into a world, a community” and that’s why almost everything about this song falls so flat for me. These people don’t have interests or personalities to sing about, they have a list of things that Jonathan Larson clearly likes that they check off in a flurry of mismatched cultural references and table-dancing.
And what’s the function of the song? To get Mimi and Roger closer together? To bring Benny back in and embarrass him, as well as set up his relationship with Mimi? To do both these things with a group number set piece with people dancing on tables?
Yeah, all that for sure. I did cut a fair bit of little dialogue bits and snippets for the purposes of getting to the song itself, but a large set piece number with these little asides is a fair way to move plot threads and strands without everything coming to a grinding stop. But in a way, it's the specificity of “La Vie Boheme” that breaks it; its laundry list of preferences, perversions, and pop culture mark “La Vie Boheme” as a sort of proto-hipster manifesto: we like these things, so we’re cooler than you.
What could have worked was something in the style of the song “Rent” itself, but one that shows the joy and vitality of these characters rather than their frustrations without necessarily just being a list of things they enjoy that the rest of society does not.
Like yogurt. And Carmina Burina.
Fuck you, “La Vie Boheme”.