Now that long-running musical Rent has closed on Broadway, the inevitable, awful high school productions have begun. Which is ruffling parental and administrative feathers across the land. But, really, what's the big deal with Rent?
Well, you know, it has gay stuff in it. Like references to committed same sex-couples, but also to AIDS and bad words. Even though there's something called a "School Edition" of the 1995 rock musical extravaganza about AIDS-riddled bohemes (gay, straight, trans, whatevs) living and dying in the East Village, which cuts out some language and the sex song "Contact," people in places as diverse as Orange County, Texas, and West Virginia are objecting. Principals have canceled productions, incorrectly citing things like "prostitution" as their reasons. (There is no prostitution in the show).
Theater teachers and supporters of the show are upset with what they feel is a bias against homosexuals. The director at Corona del Mar High School, in Newport Beach, said that he undertook the show because he'd seen a rise in homophobic language on the school's campus. But the principal shut him down and remains tight lipped about the whole gay thing.
So where should we fall down on this? Outrage over gay suppression and backwards thinking and all that ("We're a bit back in the woods here," said a West Virginia principal who stopped her school's version)? Or should we just sigh and resign ourselves to the fact that even shows as relatively tame as Rent will still rankle in big, lopsided America? Well, as I said to a friend earlier, high schools wouldn't do Buried Child or Oleanna or even Angels in America. Nor should they. It's just an age and experience thing. But, as she argued back, kids should see Rent if it'll pry open their eyes a bit. So when do they get that opportunity, if not at their school?
Ultimately I think it's a case by case basis. Some poor decisions will be made, some brave and convicted ones will be too. It's the good/bad nature of theatre that, unlike movies, everyone can tackle a piece, and make it their own issuey, bad production if they want to. While the she show's composer Jonathan Larson and his producers and cast may not have found the show scandalous fourteen long years ago, some sweater-vested principal might find his own school's version to be Last Tango in Paris: For Kids. We have to take that good and take that bad and just be glad, I guess, that the debate and controversy and silliness can exist at all. I mean, at least they're fighting over a show that was once seen as something of a polemic, right? It's not like we get arguments about really tame shows anymore!