By FRANK RIZZO, email@example.com
9:00 PM EST, December 10, 2013
Can you believe the protests, the internet chatter, the angst surrounding the controversial revival of a Broadway musical?
No, I’m not talking about Carrie Underwood’s performance in NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live” last week.
I’m talking about something much more important than bad casting, line-stepping Nazis or bizarre lederhosen. I’m talking about the cancelation of a high school musical.
But this story of a show, a school and its town says a lot about the power of theater, the resiliency of a community and the far-reach of social media.
It all began right before Thanksgiving -- just days before auditions were to take place for the school musical that had been announced in August -- and in years past been autonomously selected, not requiring prior approval.
It was late November when Trumbull High School’s first-year principal. Marc Guarino, (pronounced Gar-in-o) put the kibosh on the long-in-the-planning spring musical, “Rent: School Edition,” saying the show was too controversial.
Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock and pop musical -- an updated, NYC-set version of the Puccini opera “La Boheme,” ran for 12 years on Broadway. The show deals with issues of AIDS, drugs, sexuality and gender among a group of young artists and musicians struggling to survive in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the shadow of AIDS/HIV.
But the “School Edition” was neither the original Broadway script nor the screenplay from the 2006 film version (which a-hem was rated PG-13). It was a version created especially for high schools by the show’s New York licensing house Music Theater International, with much of the profanity and sexuality softened to make it acceptable to be performed by contemporary teenagers who wanted to deal with serious subjects that affects their lives. (MTI has created similar school editions for “Miss Saigon,” “Avenue Q” and “Sweeney Todd.”
This school edition of “Rent” has played at such far-flung red-state high schools in Oklahoma and Tennessee and schools as close as Middletown, Woodbridge and Greenwich.
In an age where teens can easily check out “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” killing a show about community, love and youthful empowerment sends the wrong message
I have attended the annual Connecticut High School Musical Theater Awards over the years and Trumbull High School’s skillful, professional-looking shows are regularly serious contenders for top statewide prizes -- and it even had a leading actor won best thesp honors and then go on to compete in the nationals on Broadway. We’re talking serious, savvy and sophisticated performers here.
In early December, the Trumbull board of education supported the new principal’s right to cancel the show, despite an astonishing social media campaign led by Trumbull High School Thespian Society’s president, 17-year-old Larissa Mark, to change the mind of the principal and the board.
Mark, seemingly driven by the artistic and authority-challenging spirit of the show, sought and gained extraordinary support from fellow students and the Trumbull community. (Within two days about two-thirds of the student body signed a petition of support; an informal survey of more than 400 adults in town showed that 97 percent supported the kids; more than 7,200 “liked” the Facebook page established for the campaign: “Trumbull for Rent.” (You can still add your "like")
But the answer was still a distant “no.” The principal did not appear before the board in person but sent a letter reconfirming his original decision. No discussion. Case closed. He has yet to speak to the press to explain his action and his stonewalling has only fueled national media attention. (Howard Sherman, who was born and raised in the state and is former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, has been holding a spotlight on the controversy since it emerged several weeks ago.)
Guarino allegedly told students that there wasn’t time to put the provocative issues raised in the musical in a proper educational context and to create a learning experience for the students.
But that response is pretty thin. The musical isn’t until next spring. Any halfway competent bureaucrat can quickly put together speakers, panels and a program that can deal with common teen-centric issues as drugs, sexuality and gender. Besides, there are already study guides aplenty from high schools that have uneventfully put on the show for years.
The original dates for the musical before were March 25 to 27.
To try to tamp down the outcry and not make the town educators and leaders look too much like a bunch of rubes, Tim Herbst, First Town Selectman, suggested last week a “compromise” that the show be done off school property as part of the Trumbull Youth Association, a summer group that offers a summer musical for the community.
But instead of urging the reversal of a poor and mishandled decision by the principal, it only creates new problems for others. Putting on a musical like “Rent” is neither cheap, nor easy for an ad hoc summer group. More to the point, many of the THS seniors will have graduated and no doubt hustling to make money for college during the summer. The folks who run that summer program told the media that the proposal was well-intended but, er...no thanks.
And this is when -- if this was a musical it would happen halfway in the second act when everything looks hopeless -- Michael Price, executive director of Goodspeed Musicals told the kids they could put on the show at his Tony Award-honored Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.
The letters, emails and calls of praise to Price and Goodspeed are plentiful and quite touching and show what can happen when artists band together in support of each other. (A lesson not learned, alas, during the right wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.)
Later in the week, the folks at Hartford Stage offered its support -- and its theater. In a statement artistic director Darko Tresnjak said: “I find it heartbreaking and upsetting that in this enlightened and educated state, some students are clearly not getting that kind of support, decades later! Mike and I want students to know that there are people out here in the theatre profession who are thinking of them and looking forward to welcoming them into the field, where they will find greater acceptance.”
Perhaps these high-profile offers and the growing negative publicity on the town made the town’s leaders reconsider.
Herbst announced this week the show will be going on at the school after all, but it’s not clear when.
Guarino in a letter released Tuesday stated: “The learning opportunities are essential. To plan for these, I will be working collaboratively with various groups. I believe that this process can be accomplished during the 2013/14 school year if the performance dates can be delayed to Wednesday, April 30 through Sunday, May 4.”
The dates that Guarino proposes are in conflict with other sports and music activities in which the theater students participate.
Politics and egos still can’t create a simple exit strategy from this mess but at least now there’s some hope that the show will go on.
Now the question is when and with whom?
If you’re forcing kids to chose between the show and other long planned school activities, I’d say “Gotta Go Goodspeed.”
But maybe it’s still not too late for Guarino, perhaps taken by “Rent”‘s “season of love” theme (not to mention the Christmas spirit) to gather all the study guides, lesson plans and panel proposals from the high schools from around the country and pull something together so the show can go on as originally scheduled.
But whatever happens, the students have performed admirably, with passion, industriousness and imagination, challenging authority and themselves, in the spirit of “Rent.”
Added information about Hartford Stage's offer was included since the blog was first published Tuesday night.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant