Rent: The Show Must Go On?

March 27th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

A controversial high school version of Rent raises questions of age-appropriateness in the arts.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

There’s a “Rent” dispute raging through some unlikely places—Rowlett, Texas…Newport Beach, California…Bridgeport, West Virginia. It’s not about housing rights, but about a rite of passage—the high school musical—and what constitutes a responsible show for teens to stage. 

After the producers of the Broadway musical “Rent” spun off a modified version of the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play, high schools across the country showed interest in staging it. “Rent: School Edition” was intended to replace aging school performances like “The Music Man” with an edgier production that doubles as a teaching tool about discrimination and tolerance. 

The school version omits some profane language and same-sex contact. But the story, centered on a group of New York City artists—gay, straight, drug addicted, and HIV-positive among them—remains the same. And that has rankled school officials, who have in turn enraged drama teachers, leaving students caught in the middle. 

“I know drugs are out there, I know children are having babies at twelve…But I don’t know if we need ‘Rent,’” said a West Virginia schools superintendent who forbade a local high school to stage the show, explaining that West Virginia families wouldn’t find the content of “Rent” appealing. 

But broadening perspectives is the point, say supporters of the show. “My responsibility as a drama teacher is to expose my students to a variety of different types of plays,” explained a California high school teacher who said his school principal told him to cancel the show after disapproving of its gay characters. The principal denies it, and flabbergasted students were told they might stage “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” instead. 

The controversy over “Rent” got so intense in Rowlett, Texas that Rowlett High’s theater director cancelled the production himself, to spare his students the pressure of local residents who called the subject matter immoral, anti-family, and inappropriate for a high school audience. “Everyone is pretty upset,” said a student with a leading role. 

All of which prompted one of the original Broadway cast members from “Rent” to remark, “You’re going to be upset in 2009 about a show because it has a man onstage in women’s clothing? You’ve gotta be kidding me.” 

Tell us what you think: When teens are shielded from reality, is it a help or a disservice? When it comes to responsibility in the arts, who should decide what’s appropriate?