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"Rent" stars in a high school drama of its own

February 17, 2009 |  4:54 pm

Drama students at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach were excited to push the envelope with a spring production of the Bohemian love story "Rent."

But the school's drama teacher said the principal told him to cancel the show because she disapproved of the gay characters in the musical. Fal Asrani, the school's principal, disputes that she pulled the plug on the production, saying that she only asked to review the script.

Now, amid growing backlash and consternation from students and members of the gay community, the actors at Corona del Mar High are grudgingly preparing for a very different show: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

The drama teacher said it's a safer choice, and one sure to pass muster with his boss.

Drama instructor Ron Martin originally settled on "Rent," the story of artists living in New York City, for the spring musical. He said he hoped it would be a vehicle for teaching tolerance after overhearing students using homosexual slurs.

"My responsibility as a drama teacher is to expose my students to a variety of different types of plays," Martin said.

At a recent meeting with Martin and a union representative, Asrani shut down the "Rent" plan, saying that she needed to review the script because of the "prostitution and homosexuality" in the musical, Martin said, adding that there is no prostitution in the play.

Asrani did request a script, a common practice in the school district, and was not provided one, said Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss. The principal has discretion over anything that happens on campus, but she "emphatically denies" canceling the show, Boss said. That call was made by the drama teacher, she said.

"We feel confident at the role the principal played," Boss said, adding that district officials will follow up on the matter when students and staff return from a break next week.

Martin said Asrani had never asked to review a play script prior to a production in the five years he’s worked at the school. The teacher had already run "Rent" by actors' parents with no problem, he said. And previous shows such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" portrayed adult themes without raising administrators' eyebrows.

Drama students, roughly 20 of whom had already been cast for roles in "Rent," were flabbergasted.

"We've all been angry," said Tim Dyess, 17, a Corona del Mar High senior and president of the Drama Club. "The reason why it got canceled was completely ridiculous.”

He and other students plan to distribute fliers and buttons and post YouTube videos criticizing what they view as a discriminatory move.

-- Susannah Rosenblatt

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