You Can’t Rewrite Your High School Musical

December 18th, 2013 § 23 comments

Southold (NY High School

Southold (NY) High School

You’re not going to believe this.

On Monday, Principal Marc Guarino of Trumbull High School in Connecticut reinstated the Thespian Troupe’s production of Rent, after three weeks of negotiation and outcry. On Tuesday, The Suffolk Times on Long Island published an interview with Southold Schools Superintendent David Gamberg in which he, acknowledging awareness of the Trumbull situation, proudly announced that Southold High School’s Drama Club would be producing the school edition of Rent in March, just like Trumbull.

But don’t cry ‘yippee.’  This isn’t a story to celebrate.

Here’s a paragraph from the article:

“What we did was we looked at the school script and we asked the teachers involved in it to really take a good look at it to make sure it’s fitting for the community,” Mr. Gamberg said. “It has a very strong and powerful message that we think is going to be very positive, but again this is based on the idea that we want to make sure that it’s very sensitive to the community as a whole. The three teachers involved are very responsible for that.”

The reporter then goes on to say that Mr. Gamberg doesn’t know what kind of modifications the school might make.

Wait a minute. Modifications?

rent school edPerhaps Mr. Gamberg isn’t aware that when you license a play for production, whether at a high school or a professional company, you are entering into a contract giving you the right to produce a copyrighted work as written. You can’t just pull out the metaphorical red pen and edit it to your own specifications. If you do, you’re in breach of contract. That’s something that rights holders and licensing companies take seriously.

The fact that some authors have permitted their works to be edited, or participated in such editing, for licensing as “school editions,” doesn’t give anyone permission to pile on and make more changes. When licensing houses find out such a thing is happening, they get very serious very fast, and that can lead to the loss of rights to the show. This post, combined with The Suffolk Times article, is all that’s needed to place your school under scrutiny. You might tell your committee of bowdlerizing teachers to take a break. Incidentally, where is the school’s principal in all this?

Now when small changes are requested for specific, defensible reasons, the licensing houses may have some latitude to work with schools on  very minor revisions. They’re in the business of helping schools; they’re not monolithic ogres. But before anyone thinks this is a run of the mill copyright and license violation, you all need to know: it gets worse. Again, from the article:

“Plans for the school performance led a pair of Southold residents to contact The Suffolk Times with concerns over the school’s handling of gay characters in the play. An anonymous letter writer said the play was inappropriate since it could “put students in the position to have to play gay/lesbian or drug addicted [characters.]”  One parent said her child believed the district was making changes that might offend gay students, including a decision to cast a female to play the role of the drag queen Angel, which is traditionally played by a male actor in school, community and professional productions.

When asked about a female student being cast to play Angel, Mr. Gamberg, who said he didn’t know if any casting decisions had been finalized yet, said, “I think that goes in line with being sensitive and making sure it’s appropriate for school. I don’t think it’s going to be written and spoken in a way that’s going to be seen as inappropriate. That’s the kind of sensitivity that [teachers are] looking at.”

Well, Mr. Gamberg, now you’ve done it. The storyline of Angel is very specifically written as a gay male role. To suggest you can simply change the performer to female fundamentally alters the work and seems designed, at the very least, to eliminate the drag queen element of the character – which is essential. Believe me, I’m completely supportive of non-traditional casting, but not when it’s used to smooth over “difficult” content in order to placate the narrowminded.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia & Jesse L. Martin in the film of Rent

Wilson Jermaine Heredia & Jesse L. Martin
in the film of Rent

Tell me, will you be making your female Angel heterosexual or lesbian? Exactly where does your “sensitivity” lie? You may think you’re appeasing your community by suggesting this change could happen, but instead you’re flirting with tampering with a beloved work without the right to do so in order to kowtow to homophobic sentiment. Are you just afraid of what some people in the community might say about Rent? What exactly is inappropriate in the school edition? There is nothing sensitive in what is going on with Rent at Southold.

This post, coupled with my advocacy on behalf of the students of Trumbull High School, may suggest that I’m a rabid Rent partisan, but I’d be writing this if the show was Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde, Avenue Q or Grease. My issue is the rights of students to take on challenging work in their schools, rather than forcing all high school theatre to be utterly anodyne. I’ll yank this post down immediately and replace it with a full apology if I learn that the school is in consultation with MTI, which licenses Rent. But I’m placing my bet that you’re out of bounds Mr. Gamberg, though I’d be perfectly delighted to be proven wrong. The simple solution is to do Rent: The School Edition as written. However, if you are intractable in your desire to rework the show to your own standards, and your statements and planned actions result in your school losing the rights to Rent, there will be only one person for your students to blame. He sits in the superintendent’s chair of the Southold School District.

My thanks to Natalie Chernicoff for bringing this situation to my attention.

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  • Why didn’t the principal say something before the purchase requisition for RENT was approved and the purchase order was given, and the purchase order was submitted to pay for licensing for RENT, School Edition?
    If the principal wants his say in the selection of musicals, he needs to make it a policy and actually talk to the Drama Director.
    This story sounds so familiar. Sonja Hansen, Loveland, Ohio

    • Howard Sherman

      This seems like someone trying to have the best of both worlds: credit for being broadminded enough to have RENT at their school, but trying to homogenize it so as not to offend anyone.

  • Fledgling Director

    to be fair, the author of this show never consented to have it edited for a school version in the first place, since he wasn’t alive to give such consent. Where is the line drawn with editing for content? Removing songs/content for a school version vs. the school changing a characters’ gender….kind of seem on the same level to me, since they’re both about appropriateness for a certain age group.

    • Howard Sherman

      The edits for the school version were approved by the rights holders to RENT, namely the Larson family. There is no equivalency between decisions by the rights holders and those conceived by others without approval, regardless of intent. It simply is not legal.

      • Southold Parent

        Not only is Angle now a female character Tom is no longer gay. Way to turn the play into something it is not. Why bother doing a play if they can’t /won’t stick to the original script

        • Howard Sherman

          If you can provide me with specific information privately, I can share it with the appropriate parties. howard AT hesherman DOT com.

          • Southold Parent

            The school was contact by MIT and told they can’t make changes but so far Angel is still a girl playing a girl. An the young man playing Collin does not want to be gay. ( so we shall see) hope a rep from MIT comes to see the play!

          • Jonathan Dorf

            If that’s true and continues, it sounds like they should have done a different show–and that this production needs to be shut down.

          • Southold Parent

            The school is working over time to sell the play to the community.

  • tristanrobin

    This IS the high school edition of Rent – performed by schools yearly all across America – this first-year principal just got puffed out with ego and power and went over the line.
    Personally, I disagree with watering down the story of AIDS and its impact on our nation and society as a whole – but, it’s been legally licensed to do so by the copyright holders, so it’s all fair game.

  • Tree

    how about being sensitive to the LGBTQ community, not the small town homophobes? i hope this helps get the Larson’s attention, my high school can NOT ruin the heart of my fave musical.

    • Howard Sherman

      I can only say that both The Suffolk Times article and this post have been shared with all appropriate parties. However, if people with direct knowledge of the situation can share more detailed information with me, that would help me in my advocacy. Just click on “contact” on the left side of this page.

      • Tree

        followed on twitter! asking around (i’m a past graduate)

    • Anne Marie Grossman

      The sad thing is they will probably do exactly that. We both know how nimby and closed-minded the good ol’ North Fork can be.

    • Dina

      Patrice. It was great. It was so much better thank I ever expected. And the kids at SHS performed like pros. Rent has always been one of my faves. Saw it 4 times on b’way and know every word by heart. They did a great job. You would be proud.

  • Anonymous

    First of, Southold has done grease… And it was probably the best production they have done. Now I’m sure if southold was to keep the LGBTQ parts in the play, parents and people would’ve complained anyways. Why can’t they rewrite the play this isn’t broadway. They are making it school appropriate and people are too sensitive about this kind of stuff. Now about Mr Gamburg, he’s absolutely right about this having a good message in it. It doesn’t matter if a couple parts are changed… The over exaggeration about a small school play is outrageous… I just don’t understand people these days. Can’t make anyone happy.

    • Jonathan Dorf

      First, I’m not sure how doing Grease is remotely relevant to anything. Second, if you’ve got a play whose core has substantial LGBTQ content and that offends your audience, do your audience a favor and invite them into the 21st century. If that doesn’t seem practical, you shouldn’t make changes to the play to make it “less offensive” to the bigots who will inevitably complain–you should do a different play. Third, regardless of who is producing a play and at what level of production, producers are subject to a licensing contract in which they agree not to make ANY changes without permission. They’re in clear violation of that contract, which is a business arrangement. Keep in mind that authors labor for months and often years (particularly on a project like this one) on their work, and copyright law protects the product of that labor from unauthorized use. It’s their work. It’s that simple. You can’t take somebody’s car out for a ride–much less give it a different paint job–just because you like it (or some of it) and promise to return it. It’s not yours.

      • Tree

        THANK YOU

  • John

    I’m gonna put it out there that I go to Southold and I am in the musical. The superintendent has been here for five years and he understands how the community feels about certain “issues” that come up in Rent. The script has been changed to make the play a little more appropriate for its audience and the school, as they’ve done in the past by changing words to take out ones that children shouldn’t say. They have kept all the relationships, drugs, and AIDS in the play, but have just made it more fitting for the school and the community.

    • Howard Sherman

      In what way has it been made “fitting”?

    • Tree

      “issues”? it’s called real life & you won’t be able to edit them when you leave the North Fork sweetheart. Maybe the homophobes in the community should all go down south lol.

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  • SHS

    I would like to say I go to Southold and work on the production and you’re wrong. Mr.Gamberg, Mrs.Elwood, Mrs.Baumann and Mr.Rooney are staying to the text so far we have had 2 shows and both stay true. Angle is played by a female but still has the same action the character isn’t changed. We had Oliver played by a female, no problem with that? Well sir check your facts and don’t put down my school. Only one uncomfortable with the script was our High School Principal Galati….

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