The banners that line the walls of Harry S Truman High School's auditorium don't commemorate sports championships or the jersey numbers of retired athletes.

They celebrate best actors, best directors, most outstanding plays. They note the names of smash-hit musicals, one for every year since 1975.

Musical theater is a big deal at Truman. These days, it's a really big deal, with national eyes on the Bucks County school.

Last week, as playwright Jonathan Larson's family looked on, Truman was the site of the national debut of a new high school version of the Broadway smash Rent.

Truman was handpicked to be the first school in the country to translate the play - the story of a year in the life of group of young artists, dealing with AIDS, love, and friendship - to a school-age audience.

It runs through Saturday.

On a recent day, the cast was in high spirits - singing, dancing, leaping off tables, talking about costumes, speaking candidly about a musical they're passionate about.

Rent's themes are decidedly mature. Aside from AIDS, there are same-sex relationships, death, a stripper, and other weighty matters.

Senior Ashley Vitale plays Mimi and Maureen in alternate performances. Vitale said rather than shying away from the subject matter, the student actors embraced it.

"It's not Grease, it's not Oklahoma! It's modern, and we can all relate. I love it," she said.

Before they saw the script, Vitale said, students worried the play might be too sanitized. And there are subtle differences - less cursing and overt sexuality, one song removed.

But Mimi is still a stripper. She and Roger are still HIV positive. Maureen and Joanne, Angel and Collins are still couples.

Lou Volpe, who has headed the drama department since 1970, is proud of the script and of the way his students handled the subject material.

"They were really mature about it," he said.

Rent came to Truman, a school with a national reputation for its performances, by way of Music Theater International, a licensing company that in 2001 asked Volpe to debut Les Miserables for a school audience. As with Rent, the New York people tailored the play's original script for a school performance and used Truman as a pilot. The version the school performed is now widely used by other high school drama departments.

Schools typically pay a licensing fee to perform shows, but Les Miserables and Rent were given to Truman free of charge.

Being awarded Les Miz resulted in creator Cameron Mackintosh attending the opening night show and cast party. It also proved the school's serious chops.

Earlier this year, when Music Theater International representatives were looking for a school to premiere Rent, they contacted Volpe again. 

He was honored, of course, but also a bit hesitant - how would the subject material go over at a school?

"I was a little tentative about it, but our principal was supportive from the beginning and has really let us do our thing," said Volpe. "I'm not sure every high school will do it. It's edgy. But I think it will be popular."

It certainly is at Truman, where the students named Rent as their dream show before they knew they would perform it.

When they found out that Larson's family - the playwright himself died just before the show debuted on Broadway in 1996 - would travel to Levittown for opening night, they were awed.

"It's an honor," said George Doran, a senior, who plays Roger.

"I'm scared to death," Volpe confessed before the debut. "They watched it on Broadway, and now they're watching it in my high school auditorium."

Truman draws from working-class communities, and its students juggle classes and jobs. And its theater program is enormously popular - 300 students auditioned for 25 spots in Rent.

"It's definitely the 'it' thing at Truman," Vitale said. "Everyone is into it - skaters, popular kids, nerds, athletes."

"In other schools, they make fun of the theater people, but here we're popular and accepted," said senior Mark Pfender, who plays Mark.

Rehearsals began in August, and the students even saw the show on Broadway. Close to the debut, there were nine-hour rehearsals at least once a weekend, plus hours after school.

"We have been going nonstop," said Volpe. "The kids gave up their summer, which was amazing. They gave up vacations, rearranged jobs."

But they had some serious motivation. Last year, Volpe asked if the group could do any show in the world, what would it be? Rent, they answered.

When they found out that they would actually get their wish - and be the first school in the world to perform the show - they were dumbfounded.

"There were no words for it," Vitale said.

And yes, it was worth it, an exhilarated Volpe reported.

The debut was a dream, with a packed audience on its feet even before the final notes of the show died away.

After the show, representatives of the licensing company and Larson's father, Al, raved about Truman's performance, saying it kept true to Larson's spirit, saying that the love and energy of the cast honored the playwright.

The New York guests joined the cast in Truman's library for a celebration after the show, peppering the students with praise.

Things could not have gone better, Volpe said.

"There was this rapport between the audience and the cast," he said. "I have never felt like that before in all my years of theater. It was one of the most rewarding and beautiful experiences I've ever had."


If you go

Harry S. Truman High presents Rent-School Edition through Sunday. Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $15, and a limited number of “rush” tickets are available beginning at 5:30 p.m. the day of the show. Rush tickets are $5. The school is located off Green Lane in Levittown. For information, call 215-547-3000.
Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.