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Newport Beach drama teacher vows fight to stage 'Rent'

February 20, 2009 |  4:30 am

Rent2_2

Ron Martin, the drama teacher at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, says he will fight for "Rent: School Edition," the show he contends was arbitrarily pulled by a principal concerned about depictions of prostitution and homosexuality.

Martin appeared ready to acquiesce earlier this week when the story broke, saying he'd decided instead to stage something his boss couldn't possibly object to as the school's spring musical: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." A spokeswoman for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District said Principal Fal Asrani denied canceling the show, but wanted first to read the script -- which Martin had not yet received.

On Thursday, Martin said he has ordered a rush copy of the script and aims to have it on Asrani's desk Monday, the first day back after a weeklong holiday break.  He said hundreds of e-mails and phone calls led him to try to make the case for "Rent," which in the school edition omits bad language and depictions of sexual behavior.

Some of the correspondents "felt I was giving in to the atmosphere of homophobia that we were feeling from the administration," Martin said. "As I thought about it more, I was feeling that I probably was, and I wasn't going to let that happen."

Like the original Jonathan Larson musical that ran for 5,123 performances in 12-plus years on Broadway before closing last Sept. 7, the school edition of "Rent" features a loving gay couple, a battling lesbian couple and a can't-quite-get-it-together straight couple. AIDS shadows the romances of the heterosexuals and the homosexual males.Rent1

Omitted are the original script's occasional expletives, as well as "Contact," the second-act number in which eight characters are seen in the throes of lust. Also deleted, because it comes during "Contact," is a frenzied dance of death by AIDS-stricken Angel, ending in his dying declaration of love.

If Martin fails to get the show reinstated, Corona del Mar High will not be the first school where "Rent" has been evicted, joining at least one other in Texas. Yet the toned-down version of the musical, which is based on Puccini's opera "La Boheme" has teen drama geeks enacting "La Vie Boheme" in dozens of schools across North American. The website of Music Theatre International, which administers the rights, lists 66 upcoming productions, including one in May at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, a June run at Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, and one next fall at Culver City High School's Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

Newport Beach, setting of the wild kids of television's "The OC," would join the Bible Belt community of Rowlett, Texas, outside of Dallas, in excluding the expurgated "Rent" from a school stage. There, according to the Dallas Morning News, the play's appropriateness was debated in December at a packed school board meeting. The "nays" won, the Morning News reported, when the school's theater director pulled the production, "saying he did not want his students subjected to the pressure and drama that was unfolding offstage." Before community members objected, an advisory committee chaired by the school district's director of fine arts had vetted and OKd the musical, and it had the principal's support.

In July, student actors in Austin, Texas, were allowed to perform "Rent: School Edition" without props, costumes or the help of faculty advisors, according to a report in the American-Statesman. School officials, worried that community opinion might be divided, split the difference by allowing the show to go on, but minus its $10,000 budget.

The Rowlett High School cast got to perform songs from "Rent," but not the full musical, when personalities from a Dallas radio station found a theater they could use at Southern Methodist University.

Last spring, in a case comparable to the one in Corona del Mar, drama students at Burbank's John Burroughs High School took matters into their own hands when their principal vetoed "The Laramie Project," about community reaction to the Wyoming hate-killing of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man. Attracting help from the L.A. theater community -- and hands-on coaching from two of the original playwrights -- they staged the drama at the Colony Theatre, winning the admiration of, among others, their principal.

-- Mike Boehm and Susannah Rosenblatt

Top photo: A 1996 touring cast of "Rent." Credit: Joan Marcus / Carol Rosegg. Bottom photo: Actors play Collins and Angel in a 1990s professional staging of "Rent." Credit: Joan Marcus

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