“Rent”: Coming to high schools across America
“Rent”: Coming to high schools across America
How many of you performed in theatre during high school? How many of your children do now? I can remember performing in school… but as I went to a Catholic school, the productions we put on were fairly tame. I’m sure most of the time, you or your children were bringing home scripts like Grease, Oklahoma!, Oliver, The Music Man, or something along those lines.
How would you react if your sixteen-year-old son or daughter brought home the script to Rent?
Rent was a musical that ran on Broadway for over twelve years and is a Tony award winner. It’s based on La Boheme. Sounds all right so far? Don’t get too comfortable. Rent is a show about a group of drug addicts, homosexuals, drag queens, and HIV-infected young people who for the most part don’t work and “fight” to live “la vie boheme”. They’re all about bringing down the man, you see. There’s Mimi, a stripper who is into S&M, and Roger, a songwriter, who are both infected with HIV. Roger’s ex-girlfriend committed suicide after becoming infected with HIV — she and Roger both caught the disease from using infected needles. Roger and Mimi eventually hook up. Mark is a filmmaker who used to be in a relationship with Maureen, a “performance artist” who leaves Mark… for Joanne, a lesbian lawyer. Angel is a gay drag queen who has full-blown AIDS and eventually dies from the disease, and he gets together with Collins, a philosophy professor and anarchist who also has AIDS. Last but not least is Benny, the new landlord, Mimi’s ex-boyfriend, and former roommate of the bunch (he’s the “enemy” now because he married into money). Many of the characters are either current drug addicts (like Mimi) or recovering drug addicts.
Well, this production may be coming to a high school near you.
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 New York producers of “Rent,” who receive some royalties from the school edition, said they hoped it would become a new, revenue-generating staple of the high school musical landscape, as well as a teaching tool that augments sex education and draws teenagers to acting and theater with a more modern production than, say, “The Music Man.”
… 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.
… “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.”
Here’s the most disturbing part:
“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.”
The problem with Rent is that it is not a cautionary tale. The main characters are portrayed as heroes; their lifestyle glorified. The article explains how many of these high school productions of Rent were cancelled because parents have been against it. And here’s the thing: when it comes to their children, parents have every right to decide what kind of depravity their children are being exposed to. It’s not that Rent doesn’t have catchy music or attractive characters; it does. That’s why so many people like the musical on a surface level. But when you actually stop and pay attention, at best you’re getting an experience that is wholely depressing. And the fact that teachers see it as their job to force something like this onto high school students and their parents — whether the parents like it or not — should give many parents cause for concern.
The issue at hand for me is not about the fact that it has openly homosexual characters in the show. I don’t think that any school should be running around teaching students about how horrible homosexuals are and that we should treat them as outcasts. I don’t think that anyone should be discriminated against because they are homosexual. However, I also do not think it is appropriate for high school students who are under the age of 18 to be forced to watch and/or participate in a production which glorifies not only homosexuality but also drug use and a lifestyle which puts one at risk for contracting HIV. And that’s exactly what Rent does. Benny, the only character able to escape the cesspool in which the other characters live in, is painted as the enemy, the man who is keeping the rest of them down. Benny is disease-free, drug-free, in a committed marriage, and working in a good job with his wife’s family. Yet he’s the bad guy who’s sold out his principles. The characters who do drugs and have casual sex with no money, no jobs, and no future are portrayed as pure and good. And these are the role models teachers want to provide?
Is this what we need to be teaching our children? No. A thousand times no.
Hat Tip: Moonbattery