Adults don’t like the adult themes of “Rent”

Earlier this season on 90210, West Beverly High School was staging a completely unrealistic production of Spring Awakening.

The point of this was to illustrate how current and edgy things are at West Beverly as compared with the Kansas high school from which our protagonists have just transferred. It’s clear why Spring Awakening was chosen: It has a rock score and a very strong teen appeal. The unrealistic elements, however, were that (a) active Broadway shows are generally not available to be licensed as high school productions, and (b) the show contains both a sexually active gay male couple and a very explicit simulated hetero sex scene that results in pregnancy. This would have been controversial, even at West Beverly High School.

Real-life high schools aren’t yet grappling with Spring Awakening, but they are struggling with the other sexually explicit rock musical fresh from a long run on Broadway: Rent.

Now Rent is not about sex, per se; it’s about life-defining decisions and relationships and personal growth, blah, blah, blah. But the characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use. So, it’s not your average, family-friendly high school musical.

It is, however, a show that appeals to teenagers. In addition to the themes, it has a very adolescent earnestness and intensity. And it’s a show that some people want to see performed in order to open conversations about sexuality and drug use in high school. (For the record, there is a slightly sanitized “school edition” available for license to high schools. It tones down the language and eliminates the most sexually explicit song but, apparently, leaves the show pretty intact.)

Not surprisingly, some schools and communities are panicking about the show. Productions have been canceled or left unfunded in Texas and West Virginia. And a proposed production in California has become a bit of a hot potato. The drama teacher at Corona del Mar High School chose the show specifically to challenge homophobia in the school. The principal allegedly objected because of how prostitution and homosexuality are depicted in the show. (For the record, there is no prostitution and there is lots of homosexuality.) The teacher initially backed down — proposing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown instead — but, with some community support, is now fighting back.

Tracie Thom and Idina Menzel play the lesbian couple in “Rent,” the film version

Ultimately, I hope the teacher prevails and the show goes on, as it must. I certainly love the idea of gay themes in high school musicals and I love that the queeny-drama kid in every school will get to perform in drag. But I’m mildly chagrined to admit that I’m old enough to understand why some teachers and parents might be uncomfortable watching kids in some of the pretty adult scenes in Rent. It may not simply be homophobia.

What do you think about high school productions of Rent or other adult-themed musicals?

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