Seedy "Rent" for High Schoolers? Sure, Why Not
Congress is in recess, and there is evidently nothing else going on in the world. How else to explain the prominent placement of Patrick Healy's "Even a Tamer 'Rent' Is Too Wild for Some Schools," which takes up the vital fight to get more sexually chargedrock operalike the popular Broadwayshow "Rent" into high schools. The enemy? School administration squares, like a principal in Newport Beach, Calif., who refused to let the high school drama teacher stage the production.
Theater directors and students at more than 40 high schools across the country have selected a new show for their big springtime musical this year: "Rent: School Edition," a modified version of the hit Broadway musical that, while toned down a bit, remains provocative by traditional drama club standards.
Too provocative, in the view of some high school officials and parents. At least three of the planned high school productions, in California, Texas and West Virginia, have been canceled after administrators or parents raised objections about the show's morality, its portrayals of homosexuality and theft, and its frank discussions of drug use and H.I.V., according to administrators, teachers and parents involved in those cases.
"Rent," which ran on Broadway for more than 12 years and in 1996 won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award,is based loosely on Puccini's opera "La Bohème." It centers on a group of artists, straight and gay, living in the East Village. Some are H.I.V. positive; some are drug addicts; some are in recovery.
None of these aspects have been altered for the high school version. The main changes are the deletion of some profane dialogue and lyrics as well as a song, "Contact," that is sexually explicit. In "Rent," that song accompanies the death of Angel, a gay drag queen with AIDS; in the high school version, his death unfolds in an earlier song.
The 2008-9 school year is the first in which the school edition of "Rent" - which was approved by the estate of Jonathan Larson, the "Rent" creator who died in 1996 - has been available to high schools.
The Times never raises the question whether or not this is suitable material for a high school drama production. And if even liberals acknowledge that parts of "Rent" aren't suitable for youngsters, doesn't that somewhat weaken the argument that it's censorship to call the play's themes of homosexuality and drug use also unsuitable?
The article is worth reading if onlyfor the appearance of Ron Martin, the self-important theater teacher at Corona del Mar High School trying to single-handedly save it from "creeping homophobia" because he saw something he didn't like on YouTube. Here he is doing his best melodramatic "Hamlet 2" homage:
Ron Martin, the theater teacher and director here at Corona del Mar High School, found out just how controversial "Rent" can be. It was canceled after he chose the student version for the spring musical, hoping that it would counter what he saw as creeping homophobia on this Orange County campus. A recent video on Facebook, featuring Corona del Mar students using gay slurs, had upset faculty and parents, and some teachers reported that they had heard slurs at school.
"This is the first time I've chosen a show for the high school because I had an agenda," Mr. Martin said. "In this instance, having an agenda as a teacher didn't give me pause. My job is to give my students life skills. Discrimination is wrong on all levels."
He said his principal, Fal Asrani, had objected to the show because of its treatment of "prostitution and homosexuality." "When I heard that, I stopped her and looked her in the eye and said, 'First, there is no prostitution in 'Rent,' and second, homosexuality is not wrong,'" Mr. Martin said. "She made no comment. It was the most demoralizing, disappointing moment in my career as a teacher."
Healy concludedhis 1,280-word article by seeing victory for the counterculture on the horizon among the middle-school set:
At the same time, other productions are moving ahead in high schools in Mississippi and Missouri. And the school edition is even being marketed to middle schools, although none have apparently pursued productions.
"Like it or not, we're right smack in the middle of an enormous cultural shift right now, and that shift will give way to acceptance of homosexuality and acceptance of gay characters," said Jeffrey Seller, one of the "Rent" producers, who are also backing a national tour now under way. "But it's a process, it's a messy process, and it makes sense to me that we'll take steps forward and hit a pothole and take a step backward.
"But you know what?" Mr. Seller added. "The kids are going to win. They may not win this month, they may not win this year, but if they want to put on 'Rent,' then they are going to have to fight a little bit and stand up to their schools."