Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small


Quite a show's 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's 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 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 their stage, saying they support 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 30th. Parents pointed out that would be in the middle of SAT tests, 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 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.


CAST OF RENT: (Singing) Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes, 525,000 moments all year. Five hundred...

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small