Understudies! How 'Rent' Taught Us All To Be Different

by Bex Schwartz

Bohemian like you

Let’s examine the centerpiece of Rent, the Up With People On The Fringe-esque routine that closes the first act: “La Vie Boheme” is a tribal chant heralding any and all things counterculture. It’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from the perspective of East Village artists. It’s a list of everything that you need to know to be hip. There is a song by King Missile called “It’s Saturday” that opens with the line, “I want to be different, just like everyone else I want to be like.” This sentiment is the heart of “La Vie Boheme.” The number embodies an unembarrassed need for self-expression and a yearning for recognition that usually gets supplanted in adulthood by the desire to appear aloof (even though, hello, you’re wearing an army jacket, Captain Alt).

Imagine lying on your stomach in front of your parents’ stereo. The carpet smells a little like the cats and a little like chardonnay. You kick your feet back and forth as you study the libretto that came on the CD insert with the double-disc Rent original cast recording. Can you identify every person who appears in the lyrics? Do you know who Uta is? (Yes: Uta Hagen. You, of course, have a copy of Respect for Acting because you want to be an actress and it is canon.) What about Buddha? (Yes. He’s on that shirt you bought from Urban Outfitters and also the Beastie Boys are suddenly really into him). And Pablo Neruda? (Sure. He wrote that book you should read someday.) Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage? Check, check, check, and check-wait, do they mean Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas? But doesn’t Bob Dylan actually imply Dylan Thomas anyway? Exactly. You’re safe. Don’t sweat it.

And maybe you’re not exactly sexually active yet. But you know that when you someday do start sleeping with someone (anyone, please!), you’re going to be totally cool with whatever. Anything will go! Whatever your imaginary friends who happen to be also be characters in Rent are doing, that’s what you will embrace. To sodomy! It’s between God and me! To S&M;! Cool people do cool things in bed! And so, too will you! Think back to 1996! The internet was in its toddler stage-my friends would chat with people named “MuffdiverMike” in North Jersey chatrooms on AOL but Craigslist didn’t exist yet. The Gulf War started and ended when we were in middle school. “Monica” still meant “one of the Friends” rather than “blue dress and cigar.”

My mom grew up in the atomic age when kids had to duck and cover, when mutually-assured destruction seemed almost imminent. Teenagers in the 1960s turned to free love and psychedelics to escape the threat of widespread nuclear annihilation or the fear of dying in a war they didn’t support. Hair was their musical, and they fought against the conformity of short hair. By the time I was in middle school, the Berlin Wall was down. The scariest things out there were the mean girls and the jocks. Free love? Please. Having sex meant you would get AIDS and die. Drugs? We weren’t doing any, but we all looked like we did because we all dressed like Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain or tried to emulate the heroin chic look we saw in fashion spreads in Seventeen. We just wanted the freedom to be ourselves, like every other self-respecting teenager. Also, there wasn’t too much to define ourselves in opposition to, in the 90’s. There wasn’t much to protest (outside of freeing Tibet or other causes that seemed very far away). And here was the song “La Vie Boheme”-it became our battle hymn and our anthem.

Mom and dad had their own counterculture-they had Hair, which was also a period piece about being a young adult in New York and trying to stay true to thine’s own self and finding kinship within an urban tribe in which everyone fucks each other and occasionally does drugs. In Hair, the enemies are selling out and the Vietnam War. In Rent, the enemies are selling out and AIDS. Your parents were scared of dying in Vietnam. Your friends in Rent are scared of dying in Alphabet City tenements. That was their musical and this is your musical.

My mom was 17 when Hair premiered in 1967. I was 17 when Rent premiered in 1996. My mom also knew something about idealizing fictional characters in rock musicals. She always said she never burned her bra in college but it was okay because she’d seen them do it in Hair. She understood why “La Vie Boheme” became my anthem-when you’re not necessarily cool in real life, you can aspire to greatness by memorizing the lyrics to your generation’s protest-showtunes.

As Mark and the rest of the cast sing and dance on the tables at the Life Café, they recite a litany of awesomeness. They namecheck everything that you long to embody when you’re 17. It is 1996 and you are struggling to define yourself as a proto grown-up, and along comes a Cliff’s Notes for what you need to know to enter maturity as a confident nonconformist. “La Vie Boheme” gives you hope-Bohemia is not dead, not at all: It is just over the hill of grown-upitude, and when you get there it will all be wonderful and angry and full of people who are different, exactly like you.

Remember the songs with all the numbers in it? It was like, 521,647 or something?

Bex Schwartz likes bears, Robyn, and, oh yes, toffee.