"La Vie Boheme" from the musical Rent is a tongue-twister of cultural buzzwords, name-dropping, and had-to-be-there references to New York's East Village neighborhood. For anyone who hasn't heard it, here's a lyric video:
Countless theater nerds have memorized the words, but do you know what all of them mean?
Let's start with the first verse:
"You 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"
•The term "Bohemia" from the artistic and intellectual subculture originating in the 19th century, when impoverished French artists moved to the low-rent neighborhoods traditionally occupied by the Romani people. At the time, the French thought that the Romani came from Bohemia, a region of Eastern Europe (this turned out to not be true).
•Calcutta is an anglicization of "Kolkata," the capital of West Bengal in India. At the time of Rent's publication, Kolkata had experienced a boom in population caused by war refugees as well as a stagnation in socio-political development, leading to the global perception that the city was a blighted slum.
•Basically, Benny is saying that his friends think they live in an idealized form of artistic penury, when in reality their poverty contributes to slum conditions in their neighborhood.
Dearly beloved we gather here to say our goodbyes
(Dies irae - dies illa, Kyrie eleison
Here she lies, no one knew her worth
The late great daughter of Mother Earth
On these nights when we
Celebrate the birth
In that little town of Bethlehem
We raise our glass - you bet your ass to -
La vie Boheme
•The "Dies Irae" is a Latin hymn describing the end of the world.
•"Kyrie eleison" is a prayer in several Christian religions, meaning "Lord have mercy."
•"Yitgadal v'yitkadash" are the opening words of the Jewish Mourner's Kaddish .
•According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. In Rent, this scene takes place on Christmas Eve. The melody from this line is borrowed from a popular Christmastime tune literally entitled "O Little Town Of Bethlehem"
The next part is self explanatory unless you don't know what Absolut is (it's a vodka), but things start getting pretty hairy when the other cast members chime in.
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
Emotion, devotion, to causing a commotion
Creation, vacation, mucho masturbation
Compassion, to fashion, to passion when it's new
To Sontag, to Sondheim, to anything taboo.
Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage,
Lenny Bruce, Langston Hughes
To the stage!
To Uta. To Buddha. Pablo Neruda, too.
Why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow
To blow off Auntie Em?
La vie Boheme!
•Maya Angelou – An African-American poet, actress, civil rights organizer, playwright, professor, and all-around badass.
•Susan Sontag – A Polish-American essayist and critic, whose best-known text is On Photography. She contributed substantially to contemporary dialogue surrounding the AIDS crisis.
•Stephen Sondheim – A Jewish-American writer, lyricist, and composer, who holds the record for most Tony awards for composition. Popular works include Into the Woods and Follies; he also wrote the lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story.
•Allen Ginsberg – A Jewish-American poet; one of the key figures in the Beat Generation of the 1950s. Contemporaries include Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
•Bob Dylan – A Jewish-American recording artist and songwriter, whose folk anthems characterized the civil unrest of the 1960s.
•Merce Cunningham – An American choreographer and dancer who founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which stood at the forefront of the modern dance movement.
•John Cage – An American composer, most famous for his work 4'33'', which is (I shit you not) 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. He was Merce Cunningham's romantic life partner of nearly 50 years.
•Lenny Bruce – A Jewish-American comedian and satirist. He was convicted of obscenity for his agenda-driven standup work, and was pardoned in 2003 – 37 years after his death.
•Langston Hughes – African-American poet, activist, and musician. Commonly considered the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, artistic, literary, musical, and social movement carried and created by black Americans.
•Uta Hagen – A German actress of stage and screen, who wrote two seminal texts on the craft of acting: Respect for Acting and A Challenge For The Actor.
•Buddha – The primary theological figure and founder of Buddhism, not to be confused with an actual god or supreme deity.
•Pablo Neruda – A Nobel-winning Chilean poet and writer, who also worked in the administration of Chile's socialist President Allende.
•Dorothy and Toto – The girl in the blue dress from The Wizard of Oz and her dog. Come on, now.
Bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens,
Carcinogens, hallucinogens, men,
Pee Wee Herman
German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein
Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa
To apathy, to entropy, to empathy, ecstasy
Vaclav Havel - The Sex Pistols, 8BC
To no shame - never playing the Fame Game
To sodomy, it's between God and me
To S & M
La vie Boheme!
•Pee-Wee Herman – The television alter-ego of Paul Ruebens, which was used to host children's television shows in the 80s. The character was partially retired after Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991.
•Gertrude Stein – An American expatriate writer whose experimentation with the structure and form of the novel contributed to the birth of Modernist literature.
•Michelangelo Antonioni – An Italian auteur whose films strayed from conventions of linear storytelling and narration.
•Bernardo Bertolucci – A Italian filmmaker, known for films such as Last Tango in Paris and Before the Revolution.
•Akira Kurosawa – an influential Japanese filmmaker, whose acclaimed 1950 film Rashomon was one of the first Japanese films to break out successfully into the Western Audience.
•"Carmina Burana" – One of those epic songs that you've definitely heard before but maybe didn't know the name of. Composed by Carl Orff.
•Václav Havel – A Czech politician and writer, contributing several anti-Communist plays, essays, and novels to the Czech literary canon. He was also the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia in 41 years at the time of his swearing-in and the first-ever President of the Czech Republic.
•The Sex Pistols – An influential British punk bank whose only album, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols influenced a generation of rock artists.
•8BC – A now-closed nightclub and performance space, formerly at 337 8th Street in the East Village.
The rest of "La Vie Boheme A" is fairly reference-free in the text, but there is a fun musical reference when Roger plays his guitar:
And Roger will attempt to write a bittersweet, evocative song–
(Roger plays a solo)
–That doesn't remind us of "Musetta's Waltz!"
•The song Roger plays is actually "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's opera La Boheme, which the musical Rent is loosely based on. The Musetta character in the opera roughly translates to Maureen's in the musical.
The line "Cunningham and Cage" refers to Merce Cunningham, an American dancer and choreographer. This article previously stated that the line referred to Arthur Cunningham, an African-American composer.