In December we covered the depressing situation at Rowlett High School where a teacher pulled a performance of “RENT: School Edition” after controversy about the play’s content.
“RENT: School Edition” is a “modified” version of Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical about “bohemian” life in New York. The play explores the lives of artists struggling to live out a romantic ideal in a rapidly gentrifying New York City. “RENT” touches on difficult themes of AIDS and drug use, as well as love, art, and sexuality. No doubt the modifications made for the “school edition” were intended to preempt objections the original show might receive. But it appears that these preemptive edits have not been good enough in Rowlett and elsewhere.
On February 19, the New York Times reported on three instances in which planned productions of the play have been canceled do to objections from parents or school officials. Though other peripheral concerns have been mentioned, such as drug use and theft— the characters in the play are “squatting” in their apartment, part of a commentary the play makes on those displaced by gentrification— the central controversial issue seems to be homosexual characters. In an era of Proposition 8, which repealed a California law allowing gay couples to marry, it is clear that for many homosexuality is still viewed as “immoral” and not to be condoned. “RENT: School Edition” may indeed find itself on the front lines of a struggle against such attitudes. As Times reporter Patrick Healy writes:
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.”
In the short term, however, “RENT: School Edition” appears to be something of a cultural litmus test, with supporters and opponents of the play using its words and themes as the battleground.
The fight is also one against censorship, and over the right of students to engage with art and subject matter that is culturally and socially relevant. In two of the communities mentioned in the Times article, students have teamed up with local universities to stage the play- in one case a full production, and in the other a one-night-only concert event.
These are positive, creative responses that empower the students involved. However, the need to “go off campus” in order to stage a play like “RENT”, raises concerns about the climate of learning in these schools. Certainly not everyone is expected to like the play, or to agree with the lifestyles of its characters, but surely students, especially at the high school level, should be exposed to multiple realities and be trusted to think for themselves.
There may be a positive spin to this disturbing situation. One producer of “RENT” is quoted in the Times article saying, “But you know what? … 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.”