RENT tour

Kaleb Wells, left, as Roger and Danny Harris Kornfeld as Mark in the 20th anniversary touring production of "RENT." For Wells it's been a great opportunity to explore the character of Roger and to "work with a lot of great material" and "great people."


Audiences adore a good love story. They flock to them, get wrapped up in them and feel the heartbreak if something tragic happens to the lovers.

There is a genuine response to the ups and downs of relationships, UW-Madison University Opera director David Ronis said.

Emotionally charged performance is what has been on Ronis’ mind lately as he readies his production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” opening Feb. 25 at Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall.

But the month before “La Bohème” takes the stage a different style of Bohemian life will sweep through Madison. The 20th anniversary tour of "RENT" comes to the Overture Hall stage Jan. 2.

“RENT”, Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony-Award winning musical, is based on “Bohème.”

Ronis planned on producing “Bohème” before he knew that “Rent” was coming to town, but he hopes the Broadway hit influences audiences to attend the opera as well.

“It would be lovely if the people coming to see ‘RENT’ became interested in ‘Boheme’ and had the experience of seeing it — it’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “...Engendering discussion and discourse based on the juxtaposition of presenting these pieces, I can see people in Madison and the community that attends arts events making this discussion. It’s a very Madison thing. It’s fantastic.”

Both “Bohème” and “RENT” focus on the lives of struggling artists, the former in Paris in the 1830s and the latter in New York City in the 1980s. As examinations of love and loss and everything in between, the shows share complexities of different eras.

“The struggle that the artists go through is similar,” Kaleb Wells, who plays Roger in the “RENT” tour, said. “There is a different disease, different time period in a different city. (Both groups of artists) have pride in their Bohemian life, they are poor and make art that may or may not be good, but it’s good because they created it.”

“Bohème” is one of the most produced operas in the world. It is also one of the shows that often serves as someone’s first opera experience.

That was true for Wells who remembers the opera performance he saw in Boston as “grand and intense.”

The same can be said for “RENT” which, because of its accessibility as a rock-ish musical, is a show that can easily transition musical theater newcomers into the fold.

Purposefully intertwined, the two shows should attract audiences searching for a cathartic evening in the theater.

Larson wrote “RENT” by studying “Bohème” in depth and even though the two aren’t exactly the same the influence is there, Ronis said.

One of the more obvious ways in which Larson alluded to “Bohème” was in the naming of his characters. Mimì the seamstress versus Mimi the dancer are overtly similar, but there are other names like Rodolfo the poet/Roger the songwriting muscian or Schaunard the musician/Angel Dumott Schunard the percussionist that play off of one another.

Roger and company

Skyler Volpe, back center, as Mimi and Kaleb Wells as Roger in "Rent" are the updated versions of Mimi and Rodolfo in Puccini's "La Boheme." 

By taking the fantastic story behind “Bohème” combined with his own ideas, Larson created a piece that has the same effect and is equally brilliant in its own way, he added.

Much like tuberculosis in “Bohème,” the topic of AIDS is a much different one than it was when Larson wrote “RENT.”

However the sweeping themes of “RENT” and “Bohème” still hold importance to audiences of today.

“People need the messages of love and hope,” Wells said. “We need a message of standing together and creating something worth fighting for.”

For “RENT” in particular Wells said the main message is about “living your life with love and cherishing the moments you have when you have them.”

Whereas the power in “Bohème” comes from the thematic elements of love and death and what emerges from those themes, Ronis said.

Although the two shows share many major similarities, the ways in which they affect audiences are different.

“For ‘La Bohème’ it’s the music — for ‘RENT’ it’s the music and the staging,” Ronis said.


Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.