<i>Rent</i> Remains Too Gay In West Virginia and Texas, Just Fine In Mississippi and Missouri

By Editor Editor · Friday, February 20, 2009

While Orange County’s Corona del Mar High School deals with its own battle over whether Rent is “too gay” for a student production — and whether its principal, Fal Asrani, is just anti-gay altogether — some sad news: The banishment of the hit Broadway musical is a national problem. And some good news: Some high schools are producing the play just fine.

New York Times gay mafia member Patrick Healy reports from Newport Beach on Southern California, but also West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, and Missouri:

For school administrators, the issue is not only one of suitable content for high school students, but also the lack of appeal that the show might have among potential audience members who prefer old-time, classic musicals.

“Our high school shows are so important to our community — we have alumni who come back, we bus in children for them — and I didn’t see ‘Rent’ working here,” said Susan Collins, the superintendent of the Harrison County schools in West Virginia, who canceled a production at Bridgeport High School there this winter. “But look, I know we can’t stick our heads in the sand, I know drugs are out there, I know children are having babies at 12, I know teens are having sex and always must have safe sex. But I don’t know if we need ‘Rent.’ ”

Ms. Collins said she had not been familiar with “Rent” until last year, when the Bridgeport drama coach, Charles Dillon, proposed a “Rent: School Edition” production for the 2008-9 school year. Mr. Dillon said in an interview that when he told Ms. Collins there were two gay couples in the musical, “she got flustered and worked up and expressed concerns.”

Ms. Collins said she had no personal problem with the homosexuality in “Rent,” but she was concerned that families in her West Virginia school district would not find that content and other themes appealing. (“We’re a bit back in the woods here,” she said.) She subsequently asked for and watched a DVD of the film version of “Rent,” she said, and the disc ended up back with Mr. Dillon with a Post-it note that read “NO.” Mr. Dillon ultimately worked with nearby Fairmont State University this winter to produce the school version of “Rent,” with high school students from Bridgeport and elsewhere making up the cast.

A similar situation unfolded in Rowlett, Tex.: the director of a planned production of “Rent: School Edition” canceled the show after parents and school board members raised concerns about its morality. But then, with the assistance of a local radio station, a one-night-only concert was held last month at Southern Methodist University, with Rowlett High School students performing most of the songs.

At the same time, other productions are moving ahead in high schools in Mississippi and Missouri. And the school edition is even being marketed to middle schools, although none have apparently pursued productions.

“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,” said Jeffrey Seller, one of the “Rent” producers, who are also backing a national tour now under way. “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.

Meanwhile, back in Orange County, drama teacher Ron Martin, who’s been the biggest proponent for students to bring Rent to the school’s stage, says, “This is the first time I’ve chosen a show for the high school because I had an agenda. In this instance, having an agenda as a teacher didn’t give me pause. My job is to give my students life skills. Discrimination is wrong on all levels.”