Dirty needles. Cross dressers. Pole dancing. Just another day in the high-school auditorium.
After 12 years of rocking and shocking Broadway, the hit musical Rent is exploding onto high-school stages across America. The New York Times reports that more than 40 schools plan to stage the rock opera this spring. But some parents and principals are squeamish over the show’s racy content, and productions in California, Texas, and West Virginia have been canceled.
The play is actually Rent: School Edition, a somewhat milder version of the original. The profanity has been cut — but the provocative plot remains in tact.
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards, Rent is Jonathan Larson’s turn-of-the-21st-Century take on the classic opera La Bohème. It tracks a year in the life of a loose-knit clan of starving artists grappling with poverty, disease, and romance in New York’s East Village.
In La Bohème, the heroine is a frail seamstress suffering from consumption; in Rent, she’s a smack-addicted go-go dancer with HIV. If that’s not enough to get a parent’s trousers in a twist, there are (gasp) gay, bisexual, and transvestite characters.
Like Hair, Chicago, Ragtime, and, frankly, most good musical theater, the show captures a zeitgeist while illuminating troubling social issues.
“Oh, they’re all racy and suggestive,” says my friend Cheri, who teaches musical theater to teens. “Carousel with its wife-beating, King and I with polygamy. You get into Grease, and you’re talking about teenage pregnancy.”
But there’s something about seeing social mores shattered in high-stepping dance numbers that makes them less threatening. Was anyone really scared of the gang members, and their jazz hands, in Westside Story?
The truth about Rent is that its subject matter — sex, drugs and cultural rebellion — is particularly relevant to high-school students. Sure, you’d hope the cast tended more toward seniors than freshmen (and the fact that the show is also being marketed to middle-schoolers, though unsuccessfully, really does feel inappropriate). Ultimately, though, the show’s messages are as sappy as you’d want them to be. Every day should be savored. Art should never be compromised. And irresponsible choices really can have dire consequences — at least until the final ensemble dance number.
“When kids do shows like Rent, their eyes light up,” Cheri says. “They feel like they’re part of something that’s contemporary, important, relevant, and cool.”
A responsible director helps the students understand the pain and the price of the characters’ self-destructive behaviors, she says, which not only makes for better performances, but imparts lasting life lessons to the actors themselves.
San Mateo High School in California used its Rent production as an opportunity to bring in guest speakers to educate students about drug use and deadly STDs. Seems to me that, if done correctly, staging Rent could open up the kind of invaluable coming-of-age dialogue that you just can’t get from mounting another vapid version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. (Although I wouldn’t mind an updated script wherein Schroeder finally comes out and Lucy does time for impersonating a doctor.)
That being said, there is one terrific reason not to hand high-schoolers the script of a risqué, conscience-challenging play like Rent. Or Sweeney Todd, or Spring Awakening, or even Thoroughly Modern Millie, with its — surprise! — white slavery subplot.
But the reason isn’t the damage the show could do to our kids. It’s the damage our kids could do to the play.
I’ve seen too many earnest but unworldly teens make an inadvertent mockery of powerful social-issue plays, simply because the material was a good decade of life experience beyond their dramatic grasp.
You can’t fake that kind of maturity. You can’t teach it. And I’m not fully convinced you can rent it.