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Draining The Daring From A High School Production Of 'Rent'

Anthony Rapp (left) and Adam Pascal perform a scene from the New York Theatre Workshop production of <em>Rent</em> in 1996.
Anthony Rapp (left) and Adam Pascal perform a scene from the New York Theatre Workshop production of <em>Rent</em> in 1996.

Quite a show has been going on in Trumbull, Conn.

Last week, the principal of Trumbull High School canceled a student production of Rent scheduled for next March.

Rent is Jonathan Larson's 1994 rock musical about a group of colorful young people living and loving in a colorful wreck of a brownstone on New York's Lower East Side, when struggling young artists could afford the rent there.

It is not Mary Poppins. Life is messy, tender and intense. A couple of characters have gotten mixed up with drugs. Some are gay, in a day when that was often disdained, and a few have AIDS, in the days when it was a death sentence.

Rent was inspired by Puccini's La Boheme, set in Paris during the 1840s scourge of tuberculosis, when a lot of young people loved deeply, drank too much, and hurt themselves, too.

Rent won the Tony and the Pulitzer and has been performed all over the world since 1994. The producers put together a special script for high schools, pruned of profanities, and schools across the country have performed it.

But principal Marc Guarino canceled Rent because it contains what he called "challenging issues," according to Thespian Society students who met with him. Mr. Guarino has not returned reporters' phone calls or appeared at open meetings.

So Trumbull students circulated a petition and held public meetings. The Goodspeed Opera House offered its stage, saying it "support[s] students' efforts to do challenging work."

This week the principal said maybe Rent could be performed at Trumbull. But only after consultation, community outreach and educational programs that would delay the opening until next April 30.

Parents pointed out that would be in the middle of SATs, AP exams, spring sports and a choir tour. They wondered whether the principal's offer was a way to make students refuse to do the show.

There are few better ways to make a play that's daring and edgy seem tedious than consultation, community outreach and educational programs. It is hard to believe that teenagers today haven't already learned plenty about sexuality, AIDS and drugs.

Theater instructs by showing. Drama helps us slip under the skins and into the hearts of characters we may not think are much like us, until we discover, in a bright light or a burst of laughter, that they are.

Jeffrey Seller, the Broadway producer who first put on Rent, told us, "The reason Rent is still relevant is the reason that La Boheme is still relevant: It's about love. ... It's about the families we create with our friends and the relationships we build and screw up and then build all over again."

Whether Trumbull students ever perform Rent at their school, it sounds like they've already put on a great show.

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