09 March 2009

Take It or Leave It: High School Controversy Surrounds Production of "Rent"

With the popularity of the original musical and the 2005 film version of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it is no surprise that Music Theatre International has decided to administer the rights to an edited version of the musical for high school production. The 2008-2009 school year is the first year in which “Rent: School Edition” is available, having just been approved by the author’s estate. However, the edited version is receiving as much criticism, if not more, than the original production. While MTI’s website lists 63 upcoming productions, many of the theatre groups who wish to perform the show are unable to. Much of the concern for the show comes from the outside community, many of whom are concerned with the adult themes addressed in the production. While many who advocate continuing the productions emphasize the themes of love and acceptance, others are concerned with drug use, homosexuality, and the HIV/AIDS virus. Recently, the controversy revolving around this show has become international news with articles from the New York Times, Playbill, the Los Angeles Times, and the International Herald discussing the off-again, on-again production at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California. The major issue in this specific case is differences in the reason behind the original cancellation of the show. In an attempt to explore the issue further, I looked at the arguments of my fellow bloggers regarding the cancellation and “he-said-she-said” blame game between the director and the principal. While Barenaked Joe makes an interesting argument providing paraphrasing from both sides of the argument, GottaLaff of the Political Carnival provides insight and comparison to her own personal experiences regarding producing high school theatre. My comments to both can be found on the respective blogs, as well as below.

“High School un-cancels production of 'Rent'”

I was really impressed with your original post regarding the cancellation of the Corona del Mar production of “Rent” this past month. It was interesting to see the original source not only incorporated into your argument, but to also see your personal experiences with theatrical censorship. With the wide availability and easy access to various types of media today, I agree that it is a bit absurd to attempt to censor something that many, if not all, of the students involved have already had access to.

However, I do not necessarily agree with the point you make about how the reading of a production versus viewing the performance “skew(s) one’s perception and focus.” As a theatre student, I have on numerous occasions read plays specifically for their tone and themes, which are often very easily distinguishable. While it is possible to happen, I believe that the communities surrounding the production are perhaps closer attributed to many cancellations. Patrick Healy emphasizes in his article the reasons other school administrators have cited for denying the continuation of the productions. Susan Collins, the superintendent of a school in West Virginia who canceled a production this past winter emphasized the community effect, as the district has “alumni who come back [and] bus in children for [the school shows.]” While she personally said she had no problems with the themes of the play, she did not think the school district would find the content appealing. Similar concerns were also raised in Rowlett, Texas, where the director canceled the show after a heated community debate during a school board meeting. Though community was not directly a cause of the original cancellation, Martin was quoted saying that he chose the “show for the high school because [he] had an agenda,” in which he hoped to counter some homophobia that seemed to be creeping into the Newport Beach campus. Now that the production will continue, do you think that thematic censorship really was the underlying issue of this controversy, or perhaps were people simply “crying homophobic wolf” because that is was a major concern surrounding the original production?

“Who do you believe in the ‘Rent’ controversy? Why?”

Your post about the “Rent” controversy at the Corona del Mar high school is a very interesting way to look at the various arguments. It’s great to see someone attempting to take a neutral view in the discussion over who was in the wrong. However, I think there’s a big issue that is rarely addressed in articles and blogs, including your own. According to the Los Angeles Times, the principal had never asked to review a script before this production, regardless of “adult content,” which is what she seems to be trying to push as the reason for the analysis. Shows portraying controversial themes, like prostitution in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and alcoholism in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, were approved “without raising administrator’s eyebrows.” Though I agree that perhaps “crying homophobia” was not the best solution for those involved in the cancellation, I understand the school’s reluctance at expressing that as a concern. As one of the producers of the national tour, Jeffery Seller, said, “Like it or not, we’re right smack in the middle of an enormous cultural shift right now, and that shift will give way to acceptance of homosexuality and acceptance of gay characters… but it’s a process, it’s a messy process, and it makes sense to me that we’ll take steps forward and hit a pothole and take a step backward.” This shift has many people in power walking on egg shells when it comes to controversial topics; however, it also makes groups look weak when they are divided. The inability for the school administrators and the drama teacher to come to an agreement between their statements is possibly the biggest rift within this controversy. As you suggested, the principal’s statement is lacking detail, which I think causes many people, including myself to question: What does the administration of Corona del Mar have to hide from their community?

1 comment:

  1. First off, your article is extremely relevant on the issue surrounding the shifting of the acceptance of homosexuality today. I think looking at smaller scale problems such as the cancellations of the play Rent you see how conservative and lacking our society still is, and at the same time there are examples of schools and communities which push forward and are trying to raise their kids in a completely accepting environment. With such a controversial topic it becomes easy to take sides, however your ability to look at both parties’ arguments on such a controversial issue without becoming bias in one direction allows your comments and analysis to become more grounded and influential on this subject matter.
    In many cases your use of outside sources made your arguments stronger, especially describing the cultural shift as a “process, it’s a messy process, and it makes sense to me that we’ll take steps forward and hit a pothole and take a step backward”. However, one critique is that both articles seem to take similar stances on the topic. I completely agree with your comments that it is the community, donors, and alumni driving these decisions of what plays get made, and in a strange way it is similar to the process of ending segregation in southern college football. Both circumstances rely heavily on support from alumni, and often make decisions on personnel and the direction that the program is taking. In many instances the administration changed before the community and actually changed the views of the community. Play’s have the same sort of scale as college football, granted not thousands watch every Saturday on TV, there impact on those who watch and experience are the same. As college football played a large impact on influencing the role of African-Americans in the south, theatre might have the opportunity to inspire a conservative town to become more accepting of homosexuality in the OC or Texas.


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