five-hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear,
five-hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,
how do you measure, measure a year?
A modern-day Rock Opera adaptation of Puccini's La Bohème, written by Jonathan Larson (who died before the show was staged), RENT centers around a group of New York bohemians in the early nineties, including:
Mark Cohen: A film maker. He is Maureen's ex-boyfriend and Roger's roommate.
Roger Davis: A musician and former junkie. He and his now-deceased girlfriend April were diagnosed with HIV. Mimi attempts to pursue a relationship with him.
Mimi Marquez: An exotic dancer. She is a heroin addict, as well as having AIDS. She tries to pursue a relationship with Roger.
Tom Collins: an HIV-positive philosophy professor and former roommate of Mark and Roger. He falls in love with Angel.
Maureen Johnson: A free-spirited, bisexual performance artist. She left Mark for Joanne.
Joanne Jefferson: A Harvard-educated lawyer. She is Maureen's girlfriend, and much, MUCH more strait-laced.
Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III: Mark and Roger's landlord. He used to be their roommate, until he married into money and "sold out".
Notable for its revitalization of the musical theatre genre among young people, its ground-breaking portrayal of people with AIDS, and its obsessive fanbase.
This play provides examples of:
Ambiguous Gender: Angel. An unusual case, as it isn't because of androgyny, but because Angel is DMAB, dating a gay man, dresses like a drag queen, acts femininely, and is hinted to prefer the pronoun "she" (but apparently doesn't mind masculine pronouns, since Collins sometimes uses them). Her actual gender is never explicitly stated, so interpretations of her range from crossdresser to transfeminine to everything in between.
Ambiguously Brown: Mimi is said to be Latina, but since one of the first actress to play her was half-black, other portrayals have ranged from fully-black to even white.
Of course, it's possible to be Afro-Latina or white Latina, but the trope still applies.
Adaptation Distillation: While far from perfect, the film version streamlines the story and cuts down extraneous bits, allowing for more focus on the main characters and their friendship. For example:
Instead of breaking up multiple times, Roger/Mimi and Joanne/Maureen only break up once, giving the break-ups much more emotional weight.
"Contact" is cut, Angel's illness instead is played alongside "Without You", which also shows the depth of Mimi's depression and disease and how she comes to rely more and more on Benny.
More focus on the group's friendship, as well as the interpersonal relationships between individual characters (Mimi and Angel's friendship, for example, is given more focus).
Anachronism Stew: The play doesn't have a set time period and premiered in 1996, but the movie is set in 1989-90. Benny would have to be a prophet to plan a cyber cafe, since the internet didn't start becoming mainstream until the mid-90's. The same is true for Angel referencing Thelma & Louise a year before it was released. And that's not even the half of it; among other things, Mark's film montage at the end contained a mural painted on a wall for deceased Latin music legend Celia Cruz on it (with "RIP Celia" and everything)... though the movie was supposed to be set about 10 years before that happened.
Anything That Moves: Maureen seems to fall prey to this trope, perhaps best personified when she sings: "Ever since puberty / Everybody stares at me / Boys, girls, I can't help it, baby!"
Black Bra and Panties: Mimi takes off her silver robe for these at the beginning of "Out Tonight" in the film adaptation.
Book Ends: "December 24th, 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time..."
Breakup Song: "Take Me or Leave Me". Joanne and Maureen fight during their engagement party and they end up calling off the engagement because of their clashing personalities.
Cast Full of Gay: Joanne is gay (or possibly bi; we see her in a same-gender relationship and don't know her relationship history), Collins and Angel are some subtype of queer (who knows, thanks to Angel's Ambiguous Gender); Maureen is bisexual; Mark, Roger, Mimi and Benny are straight.
Character Development: Roger defrosts, Mark is given some depth in "Halloween" and "Goodbye Love," Maureen gets a little less slutty and clingy after "Goodbye Love" (or at least, is willing to try harder to stay faithful to Joanne).
The stage show is nearly entirely sung-through; the movie converts several songs into dialogue scenes or nixes them completely. Notable cuts include the various "Tune-Up" and "Voicemail" sequences, "We're Okay", "Christmas Bells", "Happy New Year" and "Contact". Furthermore, "Halloween" was recorded and filmed, but cut from the theatrical release. Less than 1/3 of "Goodbye Love" made the cut.
Not to mention all the songs that got cut from the stage version. "You're a Fool", "Because You Were Right", "You'll Get Over It", "Real Estate", "Do a Little Business," and "Open Road" are a few. Some are rather bad ("You'll Get Over It"—a duet between Mark and Maureen about her dating a woman—made him sound like an ignorant lout and her like a callous whore). Others, like "Real Estate" (a duet between Benny and Mark where Benny tries talking him into giving up art and being his business partner) were cut for length.
The high school edition of RENT cuts Contact, though this is understandable. It would be hard enough to get RENT put on in a high school without there being a onstage orgy.
Dark Reprise: The literal reprise of "I'll Cover You" sends 97% of people into either quiet, manageable tears or full-blown hysterics.
The original Broadway cast were ten years older when they reprised their roles in the film. Having said that, all of them still looked young enough that it didn't matter. This is exactly why Fredi Walker (the original Joanne) didn't come back; she thought she looked too old to play a recent law school grad.
Double Meaning Title: It refers to the rent that Mark and Roger can't pay, and to the general feeling of being torn (i.e., "rent") apart. And the third meaning, as suggested by "I'll Cover You" and "What You Own" - nothing is owned in this life, only rented. Including life itself.
Downer Ending: The Dutch production apparently did not like how Mimi seemed to be brought back to life by the power of love. And decided to change it so that she really does die. And after she gets carried off stage by the other characters, Mark stands on stage and sings a cynical rendition of the finale. This was approved by the licensors and everything.
Even the Guys Want Him: In the DVD commentary, Chris Columbus and Anthony Rapp speculate that the true reason some viewers left the theater during the "I'll Cover You" scene is because they had difficulty coping with their own desire for Wilson Jermaine Heredia and his fantastic legs.
Expy: Every single major character is a personality Expy to a character (or two, in the case of Joanne) in La Bohème.
Family of Choice: The main characters, most of whom are isolated from their families and other friends, band together in the wake of Benny's Face-Heel Turn, just to try to get by in life. All but Joanne are desperately poor, half of them are HIV-positive and the relationships between the couples are rocky at the best of times, but they support each other and won't let any of the group go through it alone. Even Joanne, an Ivy League lawyer who was only there because she was dating Maureen, gradually joined the gang and stuck around after the couple's breakup.
Fanservice: The only reason why, in the film, "Out Tonight" is performed while Mimi is at work instead of at her apartment like in the play. Maureen also suits this, what with her skin-tight near see-through leather catsuit, and flashing her butt.
Friends Rent Control: Mark and Roger's apartment is huge. No wonder they can barely afford to live there. In the stage version, it's stated that there is no heat or electricity in the apartment. These come from an illegal wood-burning stove and an extension cord which is stealing power from elsewhere. Benny had also promised them a rent-free stay, which he then went back on, putting them a year behind.
Easy to miss, but in the Hollywood Bowl performance, Mark is seen crossing his legs while Maureen acts out suckling on the cow's udder by sucking her thumb suggestively.
In the 2005 film performance: When Maureen dons a pair of silver shades to imitate Benny, Benny removes his and hides them in his jacket.
The Heart: Angel in general, Mimi to Roger, Mark a bit.
Heel-Face Turn: Benny reconciles with the others after Mimi goes back to him (even though he was cheating on his wife). He even attends Angel's funeral which he later pays for. In the movie, two scenes that should not have been deleted reveal that he always knew Angel killed his wife's dog but was relieved because he hated that mutt, and he gave Roger his blessing to get back together with Mimi towards the end.
Heterosexual Life-Partners: Roger and Mark. "What You Own" is their duet and ends with spectacular harmony and a big hug between them once Roger gets back from Santa Fe. This trope is especially apparent in the New York Theatre Workshop version of "Goodbye Love" from all the way back in 1994. Instead of Roger yelling at Mark for hiding in his work, Mark sings this part about himself, with Roger telling him that it's not true. They then share a sweet "I love you" before parting ways. There is also the use of the "I Should Tell You" theme leading directly into Roger's "love you too". (The theme remains in the final version, but not the words.)
How We Got Here: In the original Broadway version, Mark is on stage with just his camera and sings the beginning part of Halloween: "How did we get here, how the hell? Pan left, /Close on the steeple of the church/How did we get here, how the hell?/Christmas. Christmas Eve, last year" which goes straight into Voicemail #1. However, it was later removed from the show in most Broadway productions.
Ironic Echo: "I'll cover you." The first time, it's part of an extended metaphor about a pair of lovers providing shelter for each other. The next time, it's about burying Angel.
Irrelevant Act Opener: "Seasons Of Love". The show's most iconic tune also has almost nothing to do with the narrative. However, one could also argue that "Seasons of Love" IS what the whole show is about: measuring life in the love you have lived, not the days; Angel. The whole play is a celebration of Angel and the effect s/he had on this group of musical misfits. Also, "Seasons of Love" talks about the length of a year and how it should be measured in moments, memories, and love. It then proceeds to show a year of their life.
"No Day But Today", "Without You", and "Will I" were all given this treatment in the finale. At the same time.
Some of "Today 4 U" is reprised far more sexily during "Contact."
During Finale A, Roger and Mimi echo "Another Day," "Light My Candle," and "I Should Tell You." "I Should Tell You" is also echoed briefly in "Your Eyes" and in "Goodbye Love" in the sung-conversation between Mark and Roger, right before he says "I'll call." More Roger / Mark subtext, anyone?
During Finale B, Roger meaningfully echoes "Thank God this moment's not the last", a much-needed nod to Another Day.
Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The tabloid news show that Mark briefly works at does a piece on "vampire welfare queens who are compulsive bowlers."
No Bisexuals: Maureen falls prey to this, being constantly referred to as a lesbian, when she is actually bisexual. It seems she just mostly prefers women.
Original Cast Precedent: Mark and Mimi are stated to be respectively Jewish and Hispanic, but the races of the other characters are pretty much determined by those of the original cast members despite race being incidental. Thus, Joanne, Collins, and Benny are always black, Angel always Hispanic, and Maureen and Roger always white, at least in professional American productions where a variety of people are available.
Positive Discrimination: It might be a coincidence, but the four canonically minority characters (Benny, Collins, Joanne, and Mimi) seem to be the only ones with stable jobs. Also, the only healthy and unconditionally loving relationship is between two gay men.
Joanne: This is weird. Mark: So weird... Joanne: Very weird... Mark: Fucking weird!
And then later in the same song...
Joanne: She cheated! Mark: She cheated. Joanne: Maureen cheated! Mark: Fucking cheated!
Real Life Writes the Plot: Beautifully, beautifully inverted — Jonathan Larson wrote this in memorial to his friends who had died of AIDS, but it's almost as if he wrote his own memorial. See the book "Without You" by Anthony Rapp for details.
Self-Parody: "Right Brain" definitely counts as an accidental example of this trope. Dating back to the New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, "Right Brain" was what is now "One Song Glory", and many fans either feel like vomiting or laughing when they hear it, for very obvious reasons.
Angel's last name (Schunard, the name of the character she was modeled after) — not to mention Collins (Colline), Mark (Marcello), Mimi (just guess), etc...
The use of "Musetta's Waltz" (the song Roger keeps playing on his guitar), referenced in the line from "La Vie Boheme A": "And Roger will attempt to write a bittersweet, evocative song ... (Roger plays) ... that doesn't remind us of Musetta's Waltz."
The lines "Every single day, I walk down the street, I hear people say 'Baby's so sweet'" in "Take Me or Leave Me" (a fairly direct, if modernized, translation of the first lines of "Quando m'en vo", or Musetta's Waltz).
Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying: Evita the little yappy dog is specifically mentioned to be an akita, for rhyming reasons. Akitas are a large breed, reaching 100 lbs or more. She might have just been a puppy.
Unintentional Period Piece: The movie, at least, starts on Christmas Eve 1989, but the show has always been synonymous with The Nineties. The repeated references to Virtual Reality as an evil takeover plot by The Man are downright Hilarious in Hindsight. AIDS spreading like wildfire to several of the characters (and being a short-term death sentence) is less hilarious, but pegs the action just as firmly in the early 1990s. Benny's desire to sleep with Mimi, who he knows to be infected, is arguably the worst case. It's also important to note that a large part of the reason so many people contracted AIDS in the 1990s was because it took a while for accurate information about how HIV spreads to become common knowledge, and even longer for preventatives to become easy to get. Also, plenty of HIV negative people are in sexual relationships with HIV positive people, although it was much more dangerous back then, since so little was known.
There's also a "Wham Shadow", when Collins appears holding Angel's body.
From "Goodbye Love", Mark's "perhaps that's because I'm the one of us to survive!"
From "Happy New Year":
Benny: (to Mimi) "But does your boyfriend know who your last boyfriend was?"
Roger: "I'm not her boyfriend! I don't care what she does!"
What the Hell, Hero?: A homeless woman delivers a scathing one to Mark, rightly pointing out that he's only using her plight to make a name for himself and kill some of his guilt, since filming her like an animal on the Discovery Channel doesn't solve any of her problems. This actually causes him to rethink his movie plans, refocusing it on his friends facing HIV.