A plan to bring Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” and its anthem “Seasons of Love” to a high-school stage has led to a season of uncertainty in Trumbull, Conn.
Last month, Trumbull High School’s first-year principal Marc Guarino notified the school’s Thespian Society that he would not permit a planned production of “Rent: School Edition” in March, saying it covers topics that are too sensitive and controversial for a high-school setting. The decision, supported by the superintendent and the school board in the Fairfield County town of 34,000, sparked a controversy of its own when the drama group’s president, senior Larissa Mark, took to social media, creating a Facebook page that has drawn more than 7,300 likes, and drawing the attention of the national media.
On Dec. 9, the Tony Award-winning Goodspeed Musicals offered its stage to Trumbull’s “Rent,” should the administration continue to block a production. The next day, Guarino announced that the show could go on, but only in the context of a cross-curricular discussion of the themes the musical raises. The broader approach, he said, would take time and necessitate moving the production to late April into May, a decision that would imperil a long-planned choral trip to Europe for the school’s choir, which includes several Thespian Society members. The production is still in doubt; auditions have been postponed.
“Rent” has its roots in the Lower Hudson Valley.
White Plains native Larson adapted Puccini’s “La Boheme,” setting it in New York’s Alphabet City in the age of AIDS and AZT. It follows a year in the life of a circle of bohemian artists, gay and straight, sick and well, complicated and, well, more complicated. The musical’s over-arching message is one of empathy, friendship and compassion, set in a gritty world of uncertainty and pain. It deals frankly with HIV, sex, drug use, prostitution and homosexuality. Larson died suddenly the night before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere, but he created a musical that won four Tony Awards, including best musical, score and lyrics and the Pulitzer Prize. It ran 5,123 performances on Broadway and was made into a film in 2005.
Julie Larson, the composer’s sister, has been following developments in Trumbull from California.
“I am absolutely blown away by the maturity and grace with which the students and parents are handling this,” Larson said. “I think Larissa Marks is a spectacular young woman. Reading some of the comments has been really powerful, to see that ‘Rent’ still resonates with people and a whole new generation. The way the students have behaved has brought their community together and they have lived the messages of ‘Rent.’”
Larson said some productions have been saved, others canceled, “but I think the messages are completely relevant to what high-school students are dealing with in their everyday lives.”
While “Rent” has met with Trumbull-style controversy elsewhere — there’s even a musical in the works about the cancellation of a Texas production of “Rent” — it has been produced without controversy across the Lower Hudson Valley since the “school version” (with milder language and one song removed) became available in 2007. There have been youth-theater productions in Nyack, Croton, West Nyack and Larson’s hometown of White Plains.
Hastings was the first high school to stage it in Westchester, in 2009; Ossining staged it last spring. Both productions were fully supported by their school administrations and enjoyed sold-out runs.
Gerard Marciano produced the show in Hastings.
At the time, he had an answer for those who might have questioned its appropriateness.
“It’s very much about pulling together, about finding common humanity, finding a brotherhood when you think there isn’t any,” he said. “Listen, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ has two 13-year-olds,” he says. “In the course of four days, they fall in love, get married, have sex and kill themselves. Is ‘Romeo & Juliet’ about suicide? No. Because this play has certain elements in it that might be challenging, it doesn’t mean it’s about lesbianism, about AIDS. It’s a great work of art because it rises above that and it becomes about something much more positive, and that’s why people want to keep coming back to it.”
Marciano sees the play as the very educational tool Trumbull’s Guarino is seeking.
“This principal in Trumbull doesn’t understand that you can do the show and do all this other stuff afterward,” Marciano said. “You don’t have to do it first. I think that’s where he’s getting it wrong. It’s not worth the rupture in the school population and all the attention it takes away from academics to cancel this show just because you want to ‘get kids ready for it.’ The play, rehearsing the play, gets kids ready.”
Marciano said the 2009 production instantly raised the stature of Hastings’ theater program, creating what he called “Rent-frenzy” in the school’s hallways and the wider community.
“The thing about ‘Rent’ is it gets people into your building who don’t normally come there. How many people actually stop and go in the school they support financially? What they could do in Trumbull is keep it as it was scheduled and run some discussions after each show. That would take care of what he’s trying to do. He should let the community and the kids experience it first, and then talk about it.”
Laurie Walton, who directed the Hastings production and twice directed it at a community center in Riverdale, said the musical requires an ongoing conversation.
“We had a lot of discussions before we started work, although we had to learn ‘Seasons of Love’ first, because they just couldn’t wait to sing it,” she said with a laugh. “I think some of the teachers touched on topics, but we didn’t have a planned academic moment.”
The show, Walton said “was life-changing for that community and the kids involved and we broke all kinds of attendance records.”
Last year in Ossining, producer Bradley Morrison knew of the potential for controversy from the outset and reached out to the community with letters home and a synopsis of the story on the school’s website.
“We didn’t have any real snags with the administration,” he said. “We felt the themes — friendship and love and all of the positive aspects — outweighed any negatives that we could see.”
Principal Josh Mandel was very open to the idea and loved it right from the start, Morrison said, and director Jessica Beattie planned a field trip to the New York City neighborhood where the musical is set.
“Kids today were born in the ‘90s. They don’t understand that AIDS was a death sentence,” Morrison said. “When someone said HIV, that was it. You started to get ready to say goodbye to everybody you loved. That’s not the reality anymore. We educated them about the climate of the time. For us, it was a teachable moment for our cast and the community to bring light to those issues and concerns. We weren’t glorifying or advocating; we were telling the story of how these people cope with the tragedy in their lives.”
Morrison echoes the sentiments from Hastings that producing “Rent” changed things at Ossining.
“This production was tangible enough that their parents and aunts and uncles and teachers had lived through that time and I think that closeness to the reality of it really had an effect on the kids. A lot of the kids were fans of the show before we did it. It’s a different style of music, rock and early hip-hop feel, that resonates with the kids. It had a dramatic effect on how our students related to theater as an expressive art form. It really was powerful.”
Paris Beato, who played erotic dancer Mimi Marquez in that production, said “Rent” was more intense than anything she’d done before, with deeper connections among the characters.
The Ossining senior says the question of whether to stage Larson’s musical shouldn’t be about the content of the show, but about the commitment and ability of the cast and crew.
“It’s a very difficult show, much more serious and it takes a lot of hard work,” Beato said. “It was harder than I thought it would be. I wasn’t prepared to not grasp it completely right away. Mimi was such a hard-core, interesting and harsh character. She definitely stuck with me more than any other show.”
Pulling it off “Rent” made people realize “‘Oh, wow! This drama club is for real.’” she said. “Instead of doing a random Disney love story, they took us and our acting and singing abilities more seriously.”
It looks like “Rent” will return to Hastings next April — at about the same time when Trumbull’s postponed production would go off — if Walton can cast it.
“I thought it was too soon. It has only been four years, but if theree’s a show that kids want to jump on board with, it’s that one,” Walton said. “I can’t see any reason to censor it. It’s an incredible teaching and learning opportunity for kids. It really changes their lives.”
Marciano is cautious about revisiting Larson’s work, but not because of the subject matter.
“We won’t do ‘Rent’ just to do ‘Rent,’” Marciano says. “’Rent’ is a show that reveals flaws in casting that might be hidden in other shows. We’ll audition in January and figure out if we have the voices.”
“The Music Man,” they’re not
“Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s rock adapation of “La Boheme,” is among a handful of works whose productions have drawn controversy for their themes and content and questions about whether they’re appropriate for student actors. Another is “The Laramie Project,” about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., and the subsequent trial and conviction of his killers. In 2007, controversy swirled around John Jay High School in Cross River when three students defied the administration and uttered the word “vagina” while reading from Eve Ensler’s play, “The Vagina Monologues.” The students were suspended by the principal, a punishment later rescinded by the superintendent.
Photos: Top, Alex Walton and Zoey Hart rehearse Hastings High School’s 2009 production of “Rent: School Edition,” the first Westchester high school to present Jonathan Larson’s musical in the county where he grew up. Photo by Seth Harrison/The Journal News. Bottom: Danny Aviles in Ossining High School’s 2012 production of “Rent.”