Viva 'La Vie Bohème'!: An oral history of the Rent Act 1 finale
We raise our glass, you bet your ass, to La Vie Bohème.
With this immortal toast, Mark Cohen kicks off the Act 1 finale of Rent, the joyous, rousing tribute to bohemian living that is one of the most mind-boggling assortments of kiss-off lyrics and listing of cultural references ever set to music.
From the earliest readings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “La Vie Bohème” was part of the celebratory closer to the act (and one very eventful Christmas Eve). It evolved as Jonathan Larson crafted the show from developmental stagings to Off Broadway to Broadway, but the song always remained an essential part of the fabric of Rent. Today, it’s become an iconic anthem for theatre kids and anyone outside the mainstream.
In honor of the Rent’s 24th anniversary, we called up much of the original cast and production team to find out just how this ode to being an us for once entered the annals of musical theater history.
Following the framework of original opera, La Bohème, Rent closes its second act with “La Vie Bohème.” As a production team and cast were assembled, the song made quite the impact with its dizzying list of cultural references, raw language, and tongue-twisting lyrics.
MICHAEL GREIF (Director): The first time I heard songs from the show was on an airplane, and I was very churned up by a lot of the material.
BILLY ARONSON (Co-creator and playwright): [In La Bohème, Rudolfo] goes outside in the second act to meet all his friends on Christmas Eve. So that scene was in the play. I gave [Jonathan Larson] an outline in which they were all at the table, all together, all meeting each other but that was his idea to have that song there.
TIM WEIL (Musical supervisor): Jonathan printed out the original score in a musical notation software, and I remember seriously looking at those lyrics just trying to make them out so I could understand them. Once I figured out what all those words were, I just went, “This is one of the most amazing list songs I have ever seen in my life.”
ARONSON: From the beginning of our collaboration, Jonathan thought Rent would be "our generation's Hair.” And it seems to me that the song "La Vie Bohème" is inspired in part by Hair, almost paying tribute to it. In particular, Claude's song “Manchester England, England,” where he starts dropping all those names.
ANTHONY RAPP (Mark Cohen): In the fall of '94, when I did what we call the studio production, the first day of rehearsal I went home and I had cassette tapes of demos that Jonathan Larson had made. “La Vie Bohème” was one of those. I was completely knocked out immediately.
MARLIES YEARBY (Choreographer): Celebration was the first thing I heard when I first heard “La Vie Bohème.” I heard a real celebration of life, individuality, who you are.
RAPP: Hearing for the first time “To faggots, lezzies, dykes, crossdressers too; To people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease,” it was really like a bolt of energy coming out of my little boombox hitting me. It was really exciting that I was going to get to be a part of a show that was putting that out into the world at a time when people weren't declaring such things so boldly and joyfully. I just love the re-embracing of those words that are used as epithets.
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA (Mimi Marquez): Those were things that we didn't say, particularly, and then all of a sudden, blink, and [we] say it on Broadway.
ADAM PASCAL (Roger Davis): My first thought was, “How are we going to memorize all these lyrics?” And then my second thought was, “I don't know what half these things mean.”
GREIF: One of the first things I did when I got to really look at the lyrics was a little research on all of the people who were named as inspirations in the song.
WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA (Angel Dumott Schunard): I was a club kid during that time, so I was familiar with a lot of the references in the song, but I thought here's a song that 100 percent addresses me and I feel included.
RUBIN-VEGA: I actually knew a lot of the references. It was talking to a multicultural part of me. [The clubs and such mentioned] were actual places in history that I had experiential knowledge of. That's why I got hired. I didn't get hired because I was the best. I got hired because I knew exactly what it was that they were talking about.
RAPP: I was familiar with almost of all them. I remember 8BC was one I needed to discover for myself. There was a whole packet that was put together by our dramaturg and Michael Greif and Jonathan.
WEIL: We actually did a big glossary, like a handout, of who all these people were, what all these things are, [why they] matter, and the only person or thing I didn't know was the word "entropy."
FREDI WALKER-BROWNE (Joanne Jefferson): Jonathan gave us the references. He wrote it all out. He was amazing. He had a whole backstory Bible for us. I still have that somewhere. It was the backstories of all the characters, all the references in “La Vie Bohème.”
RAPP: I do remember, during the rehearsal process, as I was tooling around New York, being on subway platforms and just going over the lyrics as I was waiting for the train.
Originally, “La Vie Bohème” was even longer than it is now, and the second act ended on “I Should Tell You."
GREIF: “I Should Tell You” was the Act One finale, when I first looked at the script.
WEIL: The evolution was basically they did “La Vie Bohème” and then they did “I Should Tell You,” and then there was a little Mark narration, a little kind of epilogue.
GREIF: [We] recognized that we needed to fit “I Should Tell You” within “La Vie Bohème” so the act really ends with that kind of joyousness.
WEIL: Jonathan went, “Let's put the first three-quarters of ‘La Vie Bohème’ first and fold in ‘I Should Tell You.’” “I Should Tell You” was actually substantially longer; there was an extra verse, the chorus was twice as long. Part of my job was to make it feel like something that's an interlude in a much larger package, but still a song by itself. Now it's a single piece, as opposed to a really great song and then a love ballad and then an epilogue.
GREIF: There were many, many more verses that I can't even recall.
WEIL: There’s a lost second extra verse that I am in possession of. When we were in China, because of censorship, we had to take out some of the “La Vie Bohème” lyrics, and I actually replaced them with some of the lyrics from the verse that was cut. They weren’t as graphic or explicit.
GREIF: [Cutting it down] was a wonderful combination of which one of those inspirations meant the most to Jonathan and getting Jonathan to understand in a lot of ways that less could be more.
WEIL: There was a reference to Nirvana.
RAPP: I remember Cannabis Citiva was one of the things on the list, Baudrillard, Derrida, Bertolt Brecht. It was just another list of things.
The cast gathers around a long line of metal tables, and led by Mark, they begin to pay tribute to “La Vie Bohème” in a deliberate attempt to offend Benny and the investors eating there. As Mark starts to sing and dance, the others follow.
GREIF: The concept was very much the Last Supper. Because it's a mock wake for the death of La Vie Bohème, it seemed like that could be appropriate. Our wonderful choreographer Marlies Yearby found a real joy in just the presentational nature of that first image.
RUBIN-VEGA: That's so Michael's brand, constructing from this metal or industrial kind of place. It wasn't about the furniture; it was about us and that was very freeing.
WALKER-BROWNE: It’s as much exposition as it is anything else. You have so much going on in the story that is revealed through that song.
GREIF: A lot of the initial staging was all about making points for Benny's benefit. There was a little danger and a little grit involved until he's defeated, and then, there's just a celebration of his defeat.
YEARBY: The gesture dance at the top of the song I’ve named “The Dis Dance." It's inspired by the work of graffiti artist Jean Basquiat and the Dada Movement. It's something they all do. Everybody knows it sort of like the hustle. The first thing is to communicate that we're going to do the dis dance to Benny.
WALKER-BROWNE: It feels organic and spontaneous, but it is so structured and it was so deliberate.
YEARBY: If you look at the shoulder moves at the top, you would see that [Idina Menzel, who played Maureen Johnson] never does it correctly … But that’s brilliant to me. I never tried to make her 100 percent correct because she had an organic way of just being herself in it. It felt so completely real. I didn't want perfection.
GREIF: It was really Anthony's best opportunity to have a good time when he spends so much of the musical worrying and fretting and taking care of everyone. It was his opportunity to really let go and show off a little. A lot of that staging came out of his really wonderful and vivid imagination.
RAPP: I remember getting up on the table, and then I was just doing my weird spastic thing. I turned to Marlies and I was like, “Can you help me out here?” And she's like, “No, you do you.” That was empowering. If you want me to be a spaz, I'll be a spaz.
YEARBY: I did not want the perfect dancing body. Anthony’s quirkiness and his relationship to rhythm was very off beat naturally. Because of how he lives in his body, there’s this little jerky, edged, twitchy thing he does when he’s singing. I capitalized on that and pulled the choreography to that place. I encouraged his natural offbeat way of moving and to this day love how his way of moving informed the character of Mark.
PASCAL: The stuff we're all doing in sync before we get up on the table, with the shoulders and the pointing, all that stuff was all choreographed by Marlies. But once we were all up on the tables, that was all sort of freestyle.
YEARBY: Dancing on the table is a given. It's a rebellion. Dancing on the table in a café definitely pushes the boundaries of the very conservative. You are not being conservative if you're jumping up on the table and dancing.
RAPP: As it evolved, she started to sculpt and shape the peaks and valleys, like when people were high or low, but so much of it was meant to be our physical expressions of how we move to music.
HEREDIA: She didn't impose a movement on you. She would say, "How does this make you feel? Tell me what this sound makes you do.” Okay, we have to get from here, from stage right to stage center, how's it going to get through there?
As the number builds, it devolves into even more pointedly lewd gestures. The group climbs onto the table, often breaking into pairs doing distinctive choreographic interludes.
GREIF: A lot of that staging came from the imaginations of that spectacular original company.
YEARBY: Improvisation is at the base of my work. I will give them samples of what I'm talking about, or I'll give them a series of images that I want them to improvise inside.
PASCAL: I'm not a dancer like the rest of the people in the cast and so left to my own devices, I just wanted to look as non-silly as possible and stay out of everybody's way. I also thought that approach worked for the character too. It didn't make sense to me that this character would have been some kickass dancer.
HEREDIA: Part of it was interpreting the song almost literally. It felt like “a trisket, a trasket” schoolyard, hand-clapping game. Both Daphne and I got on the table. We played a mirror game initially with each other, when we first started playing with it. It just turned into that [hand-clapping] sequence.
RUBIN-VEGA: Michael asked me to tone down the lewd gestures. I'm like, "That's just how I feel inside." I was doing one of those sort of "fongool" arms with the fist, like the strong arm with the other arm between the crook of your arm kind of thing.
RAPP: Some of the lewd gestures got more elaborate in future iterations. In our original thing, it wasn't a lot of that. It was more restrained in that it was more about the exuberance and the joyful nature of it.
HEREDIA: Jesse L. Martin [who played Tom Collins] just has a kind of swag about him, The skipping with Jesse was more like a “Skip to My Lou” kind of thing, and then it just turned into a do-si-do with each other.
YEARBY: I loved Jesse's feet. He loved to slip and slide around on his feet. He reminded me of James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Jackie Wilson. Those moments where he jumps out in front of the table, and we're celebrating; he's moving his feet heel-toe, heel-toe. His feet were unique, and I pulled that out every time.
HEREDIA: The one thing you saw in that number is that we trusted each other. If I were all the way stage right on the table, I knew and felt what was going on all the way stage left at the end of the other table.
PASCAL: You can't half-ass it through that number, if for no other reason than if you're not completely focused and on your game, someone's going to get hurt. There were lots of times where we would grab each other from falling off the table or stop one another from getting their fingers caught in between the tables because they would start to separate during the number.
RAPP: When we were in the thick of our eight-show-a-week grind, that number was the hardest physically. If we were at all tired, it was a bear. It never stopped us from giving 100 percent, but it was like a mountain to climb.
PASCAL: We all knew that this was the end of the act. Let's just blow this out, and then we get a nice 20-minute break.
Each of the cast then gets a moment to strut their stuff individually, with Roger playing a lick on the guitar and Angel doing the catwalk.
PASCAL: It was scripted with "Musetta’s Waltz," and I would say nine times out of 10, I messed up that riff and didn’t play it right.
HEREDIA: I was in a [ballroom] house myself; they called it the House of La Max. I was drawing from Max, who was an incredible vogue-er. Then, Michael Greif recommended Paris Is Burning to me. I had to take that whole film, literally all the energy from all the ball footage, and put it in that one little itty-bitty moment. It’s the one time I allowed Angel to actually enjoy being in the spotlight.
Amidst this, the cast assembles into a now-iconic tableau, raise their fists, and bellow “Actual Reality - Act Up - Fight AIDS.”
GREIF: When I first started on the show, I had spent a decade in New York, in the center of a terrible crisis. Jonathan and I were really familiar with Act Up and with a lot of other AIDS organization's protests. It was very easy to move that into the language of the musical.
YEARBY: Michael threw out the "Act Up, Fight AIDS" gesture, and then I went in and refined how it lived in each person's body so it felt real.
RAPP: That became such an iconic image of the cast.
RUBIN-VEGA: Seeing it on the cover of the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times is really what did it. It could be as iconic as f--- but the fact that that happened is what made it.
HEREDIA: It always felt like every day that we were protecting the piece itself and that we had the privilege to carry on the message for Jonathan. It’s the most powerful image in the show.
WALKER-BROWNE: I do remember enjoying the fact that we became a symbol for AIDS activism and activism in general. I work with a lot of young actors now, and many of them find their activism through Rent.
With its defiant, raw language, celebratory nature, and unique lyrics, “La Vie Bohème” went on to become one of the most beloved, oft-referenced numbers in the show.
GREIF: It's about community. There's a common cause — there’s something to worry about, there's something to defeat, and there's something to celebrate.
HEREDIA: When you sing that song in a group, you know that you are not alone. It's a victory chant. It's solidarity chanting, “We the freaks,” and it's all right to be that.
WALKER-BROWNE: I use, “The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation,” constantly. Because it's true, creation is such an act of love.
PASCAL: I definitely would've thought this was going to be a difficult song for people to connect to. I can now in hindsight look back and understand it's such a joyous, fun number to watch. The audience wants to be part of that, which is ironic because this is a group of people who are marginalized from everybody else.
RAPP: It so perfectly captures one of the major themes of the show, which is that in the face of the most difficult circumstances, it is still possible, and essential, to come together as a community. And to remember that this moment right now is the one that matters the most.