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Central Bucks students say district killed production of musical ‘Rent’

The students said the district appeared to be objecting to depictions of queer relationships in the musical.

Members of the drama club at Central Bucks West High School, shown here in this file photo, said they were told 'Rent' was considered "too controversial."
Members of the drama club at Central Bucks West High School, shown here in this file photo, said they were told 'Rent' was considered "too controversial."Read more

As books with sexual content and LGBTQ themes come under new fire from some parents, students in the Central Bucks School District say that school administrators killed a plan for the high school to put on the musical Rent.

In a complaint confirmed by the musical’s adult director, two Central Bucks West students stood up at a district school board meeting last week and demanded to know why the administration had denied a proposal to perform Rent this fall. The students said that the district appeared to be objecting to the musical’s depictions of queer relationships.

The school district, meanwhile, says it hasn’t made a decision yet — though it declined to provide more information or respond to the students’ account.

At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, senior Addisan Arbogast, the co-president of the school’s drama club, the Harlequin Club, said she and fellow students had been told that the fall show would be Rent School Edition, and that rights to the musical had been secured.

Then, on March 23, administrators denied the club’s request for approval, Arbogast said.

“The reason we had been given was that Rent was too controversial, but there was no further elaboration,” she said.

While Rent “does attempt to tackle some heavy topics,” Arbogast said, including drug use, she said the proposed production doesn’t depict drug use or paraphernalia on stage. And students already learn about the AIDS epidemic as part of the district’s curriculum, she said.

Arbogast noted that past shows at the high school also had “mature themes” — including Chicago, with, as she put it, “sex, drugs, and murder,” Les Misérables, with “violence, suicide, and prostitution,” and Pippin and Amelie, with “foul language” and references to sex or alcohol.

“The only topic that appears in Rent that has not been in past shows is queer relationships,” Arbogast told the board.

Angela Linch, a spokesperson for the district, said Wednesday that “district administration is currently reviewing the script for Rent, just as they do for all productions, and no final decision has been made.” She did not reply to an email asking what administrators had told the Harlequin Club.

In an interview Wednesday, Arbogast said the club’s director had submitted the request to administrators on March 2.

In an email, the director, Jessica Bostock, confirmed she had proposed performing Rent this coming fall and “it was denied by the administration.” Bostock, who did not elaborate, also directs the performing arts program at Bryn Athyn College.

Arbogast said that she and another student spoke with the acting principal of Central Bucks West, Lyndell Davis, before the school board meeting Tuesday, and that Davis “told us the administration was worried about how the community would perceive Rent.”

When the students asked what specifically was controversial, “the question went unanswered,” Arbogast said.

Linch also didn’t respond to a question asking about the exchange between the principal and the students.

Arbogast and other club members have reached their own conclusions about the district’s motivation. They point to a climate in which parents and community members — both nationally and in Central Bucks — have been demanding the removal of books with sexually explicit content from school libraries. Some of the most targeted books involve LGTBQ characters and stories.

Like Arbogast, Jackson Manning, a sophomore and the Harlequin Club member who also spoke at the school board meeting, said he believed the Rent rejection was related to its depiction of homosexuality. “Not getting a clear answer leads towards that answer, ironically enough, even more,” he said in an interview Wednesday. Board members gave no response to their comments Tuesday.

At a Central Bucks school board meeting last month, community members spoke out against sexual content in the district’s libraries, reading graphic passages from books and accusing the district of harboring “child pornography.” The cited books appeared to echo a list from a conservative group, with some focused on LGTBQ issues — like All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir by George M. Johnson about growing up as a gay Black man — as well as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which the main character is raped by her father.

Facing the school board Tuesday night, Manning pointed out that books have come under criticism. “Are we going to start banning theater as well?” he asked the board.

» READ MORE: Amid nationwide challenges to sexually explicit books, West Chester school district keeps ‘Gender Queer’

Set in New York City’s East Village, Rent tells the story of a group of hopeful young artists struggling to get by, navigating relationships, and enduring losses during the AIDS epidemic. Some of the characters are queer. After debuting in 1996, the show became one of the most long-running on Broadway.

What Central Bucks West’s club had proposed performing was Rent School Edition — an edited version of the show that, according to the licensing company, includes “minimal changes” to language and the removal of one song “to make it possible for many schools to perform this piece.” (That song, “Contact,” depicts the sex lives of the characters, and the death of one character due to AIDS.)

The licensing company, Music Theatre International, rated it PG-13. Arbogast, during her comments to the school board, noted that was the same rating given to Les Misérables and Pippin, both performed in the past three years.

Drew Cohen, president and CEO of Music Theatre International, said Monday that Central Bucks West had applied for a license for Rent School Edition. He said he couldn’t comment on whether any payment had already been made.

The school edition of Rent “gets rented all the time. It’s a very popular title,” said Ralph Sevush, executive director of the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy organization that supports writers and performers, including students, facing censorship. Cohen said about two to three schools in Pennsylvania stage the production each year.

Still, Rent is “one of those shows that does periodically have objections,” Sevush said. In 2009, the New York Times reported that more than 40 high schools nationally had chosen to perform the then-new school edition of Rent, but at least three of the performances were canceled in California, Texas, and West Virginia due to objections “about the show’s morality, its portrayals of homosexuality and theft, and its frank discussions of drug use and H.I.V.”

The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund got involved in a later case in Connecticut, where a high school canceled a planned performance of Rent in 2013. After a petition effort by students, the show was eventually reinstated.

Generally, “it almost always is based on the boots on the ground, in the community, that gets a play uncanceled,” Sevush said.

Cohen said MTI doesn’t track cancelations of the show, and also wouldn’t know how often schools might be reviewing the script and deciding against performing it.

While Sevush said that “bucking to public pressure and canceling” a production was troubling, “self-censorship is problematic in and of itself.”

“This is not just about book banning. This is about banning of thought,” he said. “This is a backlash that has to be stood up to.”

It wasn’t clear whether student performances are seeing a similar uptick in challenges as books. Matt Curtis, content and marketing director for the Educational Theatre Association, said his organization doesn’t collect such data, but “the issue is one that we are watching closely.”

“We assume that more school boards and administrators are being ‘bullied’ by parents now than ever before, and the recent passing of the Florida bill sets a worrying precedent for the exclusion of artistic freedoms in education,” Curtis said, referring to the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill.

Arbogast and Manning, the Central Bucks students, said that club members had been excited about the prospect of performing Rent.

“This is about a high school show, but it’s also about representing a community that for some reason isn’t shown light,” Manning said. “I believe this is definitely something people will continue to fight for.”

This article has been updated to reflect the response of Music Theatre International.