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'Rent' Gets A High School Makeover

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This school year, for the first time, student groups in schools can get the rights to perform the Broadway musical "Rent." It's centered around a group of friends in the 1990s dealing with AIDS, gender identity, drug addiction, and poverty. And the publisher has cleaned it up for teenagers. More than 50 productions of "Rent School Edition" are now planned. Rori Gallagher reports on one at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.

RORI GALLAGHER: "Rent School Edition" is tamer than the Broadway version, with most of the profanity removed.

(Soundbite of show "Rent")

Unidentified Actress: New York City.

Unidentified Actor: Aha.

Unidentified Actress: Center of the universe.

Unidentified Actor: Sing it girl.

Unidentified Actress: Times are gritty.

GALLAGHER: Gritty replaces a word that rhymes with it, and several of the sexually explicit lyrics in the song "La Vie Boheme" are missing.

(Soundbite of song "La Vie Boheme")

Unidentified Actors: (Singing) Be among us, without sin. Be the first to condemn. La vie boheme. La vie boheme.

Mr. BRAD FRIEDMAN (Drama Director, San Mateo High School): We were very lucky to have Anthony Rapp, who played the original Mark, come from New York to meet with us and talk to the kids.

GALLAGHER: San Mateo High School drama director Brad Friedman.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: He kind of raised his eyebrows, also I think understanding, but I think regretting some of the changes, because they lessen some of the impact of the songs.

GALLAGHER: Even with the changes, "Rent School Edition" is a serious show for teenagers to be putting on.

(Soundbite of show "Rent School Edition")

Mr. JENNIFER BRISMAN(ph): (As Maureen) (Singing) She was huddled in the park, in the dark. And she was freezing and begged to come here.

GALLAGHER: Jennifer Brisman, who was cast as Maureen, says she was uncomfortable with "Rent" at first.

Ms. BRISMAN: I wasn't so keen on the fact that we'd be doing a show about people with AIDS and victimizing them when I thought that it was a disease that they would get because they were irresponsible. But I found out that in the '90s, they didn't really know as much about it as, you know, now.

GALLAGHER: Brisman says she changed her mind about the stigma of AIDS after going through a special educational component added because of the nature of this year's show. The drama department and parents worked together to bring in guest speakers. And instead of ads, the programs were filled with information and resources. But even with the outreach, one character in particular was controversial.

(Soundbite of show "Rent School Edition")

Mr. XAVIER GONZALES(ph): (As Angel) I'm Angel. Angel, indeed.

GALLAGHER: Xavier Gonzales played the gay cross-dresser Angel.

(Soundbite of show "Rent School Edition")

Mr. GONZALES: (As Angel) There's a life support meeting at 9:30. Yes, this body provides a comfortable home for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

GALLAGHER: Gonzales's parents did not like the fact that their son would be in "Rent," and they especially did not want him to play Angel.

(Soundbite of show "Rent School Edition")

Mr. GONZALEZ: (As Angel) You're cute when you blush.

Mr. GONZALES (Student, San Mateo High School): Well, in the beginning when I tried out. They were like, are you going to be kissing boys? And I'm like, maybe. And they're just like, oh. And they're just like, no, no, no, none of that, none of that.

GALLAGHER: After the school preview, Gonzales was harassed by classmates at lunch. Somebody stepped on his shoe, ripping it off.

Mr. GONZALES: And then on the back of my head, he goes faggot. And I was like - he's like fag. And I was like, what the heck is your problem and whatever? And I kind of was like, OK, these guys are going to like beat the crap out of me. Maybe I should just like ignore it. So I kind of like ran off, and I looked back, and I give them a dirty look. And then that was about it.

GALLAGHER: Drama director Brad Friedman says he understands why some schools would not choose to do "Rent." But he's glad San Mateo High School got the chance to perform the play and talk about the issues it brings up.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And I think this kind of a play opens up that dialogue in a rich way. And I think a safer way than some of the ways some of the kids find out their information about sex, AIDS, drug addiction, all that.

GALLAGHER: And those topics simply would not have come up if Friedman had gone with his original choice, the 1920s spoof "Dames at Sea." For NPR News, I'm Rori Gallagher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rori Gallagher

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