In suburban Trumbull, Conn., a controversy has been raging for several weeks now, over the plans for a high school production of “Rent” next spring that were summarily cancelled by the principal, on the grounds the material was too risqué.
The backlash online, from adults and students alike, was probably more than Trumbull High Principal Marc Guarino bargained for. A Facebook page has garnered thousands of likes for the student-led effort to reinstate the March 25-27 production of “Rent: School Edition,” a tamer version of the Pulitzer-winning 1996 stage musical. Spurred by the coverage of theater blogger Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theater Wing, articles on the dispute have appeared everywhere from playbill.com to the New York Times.
Guarino has since reversed himself, offering up dates later in the spring, to allow time for a full slate of educational programming to be put in place to provide more context for topics covered by the show, subjects that include drug use, HIV and straight, lesbian and gay relationships. But those who’ve rallied to the students’ cause are crying foul, saying those new dates conflict with so many other academic and extracurricular activities that a rescheduling achieves the same end as the initial cancellation. The situation, at the moment, remains unsettled.
It’s fascinating to observe the degree to which the issue of what kind of theater is appropriate for a high school has transfixed the town of 34,000 in Fairfield County. We seem to be hearing about these struggles over the content of material for high school stages across the country all the time. I have never seen the “school edition” of “Rent,” but absent some strong language and sexual references, the full musical as performed countless times in New York, D.C., in a movie version and elsewhere never struck me as anything but a wholesome affirmation of the responsibility human beings have, to love and remain true to one another.
Still, I’m curious if those closer to the front line–drama teachers, school administrators, parents of high schoolers and students themselves–view “Rent” as more of a problem for a high school audience than I do? And who, I wonder, should ultimately decide what shows students are allowed to put on in public schools?