I’ve also been thinking al lot about the ghost of Vaclav Havel. When I was in he 9th grade, my history teacher, Lauren Mehrbach, dropped his play Protest on my desk. This action changed the course of my life. Growing up my babysitter was a wood-enclosed television that played re-runs of classic Hollywood musicals. Learning that the Czech politician, with a bohemian bent, could write a play that would change the course of a culture started a revolution in my head.
Dramatic irony tells us that the audience is more aware of something than the characters in the story itself. So when engaging with the play RENT how can we not feel the weight of dramatic irony? The man who composed the rock-opera, which offers hope in the face of immanent death, died of a broken heart. Literally.
Jonathan Larson’s death was caused by an aortic aneurysm. This is a fancy, technical way of saying a chamber in his heart exploded. He died on his kitchen floor, making tea. The groceries in his fridge had been bought by a friend. He’d just sold some books to get enough cash to see a movie. He was broke, exhausted, had been to the hospital twice in as many weeks, and no one detected the fragility in his chest. He died the day before RENT’s Off-Broadway opening at the New York Theatre Workshop. He would never live to see the RENT as we know it, nor could he know that the show would transfer to Broadway and earn countless awards, including four Tonys and the posthumously received Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sometimes dramatic irony is unforgiving, cold and unfair.
What would Jonathan Larson think about his magnum opus being “reconstructed” for RENT: School Edition? This question keeps me up at night. The changes are sometimes subtle. Sometimes glaring. There are verses omitted for the sake of making the show shorter and easier to sing for young voices. But then there is the question of vocabulary. RENT takes place in Alphabet City in the early 1990’s. Yet our edition is free from four letter words, gay kisses, and dare I say it… depth? The collateral damage of material cut- presumably because some of the content was deemed inappropriate- is vast. We counted. There are 1,326 words missing. For a man who suggested that we measure our years in 5,250,600 very specific minutes- over a thousand words feels like a robbery to me. Especial two – Vaclav Havel.
Despite the fact that Beacon has been honored to be the first High School in New York City, in all of New England actually, to have the privilege to produce RENT; School Edition we’ve also struggled like Mark- “Is this a sell-out?” The freedom we share as a school and the amount of trust provided to the faculty to select material that is relevant and appropriate for our students is great. As a result our students expect their maturity and city savvy-ness to be respected both academically and artistically. The givens that make Beacon, well, Beacon, suggests we could never sell-out for a “safer” version of a play. Yet when presented with the choice to produce RENT; School Edition or not produce RENT at all, we agreed that despite our disappointment in seeing some of our favorite parts vanish (“I’m 19! But I’m old for my age!”, “Kiss me its beginning to snow!”, “You just paid for the funeral of the person who killed your dog…”) we were certain that we could find the heart and soul of RENT, even if the lines, and in far too many cases the plot, was slightly askew. We have to trust that the school edition makes Larson’s vision of a better world accessible to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to touch it, and for that reason we honor the text provided.
Which brings me again back to the idea of irony- I hate RENT! I hated it in 1996 when it wrecked what I thought was the musical theatre aesthetic. I hated it when my sister and her husband (love you guys!) left me a voicemail screaming “What’s his name? Joanne!” But I hated it most when the Hollywood film put Roger in a Marlboro Man costume and spliced in a ridiculously forced Gay Marriage subplot. I hated RENT because I just didn’t get it. Until I saw it on Broadway.
I was a late blooming “Renthead”. I saw the play live for the first time seven years into the Broadway run. It was my 27th birthday. I sat in the first balcony and I sobbed through the entirety of the 2nd Act. I hated RENT again because RENT was about my friends and I miss them, terribly. I’ve always said that I learned everything I needed to know about art and the theatre from a little tribe of drag queens on the Jersey Shore. I’m not kidding. When other kids were cutting school to go shopping in Manhattan, I was cutting school to sneak out for rehearsal for a cabaret that featured a priest in a Carmen Miranda dress (sorry mom.) The artists that I worked with between the ages of 13 and 21; precious years of summer stock and silliness in New Jersey, changed my world.
I am an artist, teacher and scholar because I continue to be fascinated by how theatre can change a person and eventually change an entire culture. I am fascinated by artists like Jonathan Larson and Vaclav Havel who were brave enough to change the world with the power of their words. I really do think RENT changed the world. Yes the play brought pop music back to Broadway. Yes the play brought taboo subjects like sexuality, drugs, and the AIDS Crisis to an unsuspecting audience, and yes the assaulting truth of Larson’s untimely death made the history of the show itself as awe inspiring as the drama and the music. But now we can add to the list of RENT’s impressive resume- changing the face of making a play in high school as much as it changed the way plays are made on Broadway. RENT; School Edition will open discussions in High Schools all across America who have gained access to produce this, though somewhat “reconstructed”, play. How many teenaged Angels NEED this play? How many Rogers? How many Jo Anns? How many lives can be changed by experiencing a year in the life of our city’s bohemian history?
RENT is about adolescence. It is about people on the bridge from inexperience to responsibility. RENT; School Edition is a gift to high school students across the globe. It is the gift of New York City to Kansas City. It is the gift of Alphabet City to Mexico City. I personally hope that by engaging with the most alternative “high school musical” of all time students will learn about love, loss, gentrification, tolerance, acceptance, creativity and hope. As teenagers consider a life in the arts- could there be a time when they need it more?
Dearest Beacon, I’m sorry if you think that we sold out. Trust me we tried every avenue imaginable to gain legal permission to produce the uncut version of the text. I’m sorry we cannot give you RENT as the playwright intended RENT to be. Nothing I could say could replace what it is missing, but if you feel that this director’s note was too long, or too self-indulgent, know that it was only 1,326 words.
Personally, I can only hope that Jonathan Larson and Vaclov Havel are somehow here; that they understand and that they give us their blessing anyway.
So get ready for the revolution because it’s already here.
With unimaginable amounts of love and respect,
Jo Ann Cimato