If you are a musical theatre fan in general, and a Rent fan in particular, and you’re going to church in or around Tullahoma, Tennessee this Sunday, there’s a chance you may not like a bit of what you hear said from the pulpit. That’s because there’s an e-mail circulating among the area’s religious leaders alerting them about Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about young lives in the East Village of New York City a few decades ago. Some of the clergy may want to talk about it.
A Tullahoma production of Rent is scheduled to open next Friday, presented by the community company PACT at the South Jackson Civic Center. It’s set for six performances over two weekends and it’s the third time that PACT, which is primarily focused on arts activities for youth (the acronym stands for “Performing Arts for Children and Teens”) has done a show which reaches beyond their usual age group, in this case working primarily with performers aged 18 to 20, but with one as old as 55. Only two performers are under 18, and the parents of both have signed permission slips approving of their children’s participation; those under 18 even needed permission slips just to audition. No one under 18 will be admitted to performances without a parent or guardian present.
Since preparations for the production got underway several months ago, those leading the company say that there have been some minor skirmishes around the show. During the winter, a member of the community circulated an e-mail speaking out against Rent and the leadership and artists of PACT in general, but I’m told it didn’t get much traction. Later, after the show was cast, the actor who was originally to play the character of Angel had to withdraw due to his father’s ire over his participation in the show. But of late, everything was proceeding smoothly for the show, including the recent decision to welcome the company of another Tennessee Rent production, which just closed last weekend in Johnson City, into the Tullahoma ensemble.
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However, a few days ago, an e-mail was circulated to church leaders throughout the Tullahoma area. In a communication to his congregation, Pastor L. Wayne Wester of Highland Baptist Church quoted from that original e-mail, identifying the author as “a fellow Tullahoma Pastor”:
I want you to be aware that on July 10, 11, 12 and 17, 18, 19 a theater group in Tullahoma will be performing RENT. You can do your own research on RENT or visit the PACT site on Facebook for a brief description. In short it is a musical about a group of college age students who choose to live a “bohemian” (sexually, morally, and legally permissive lifestyle in New York City. The cast of characters include a stripper, transgender individuals, drug addicts, and many who are battling HIV due to their “bohemian” lifestyle. Several scenes take place in a strip club. While I have no objection to a theater group selecting and performing any musical or play they choose, this is our own (Tullahoma) theater group! What is worse is that this play was selected for PACT. The acronym stands for “Performing Arts for Children and Teens.”
Pastor Wayne, as he signed his communication, added his own thoughts after the quote:
Really? Do you agree with me and many of my fellow Pastors and concerned parents that this is inappropriate for such a group? If you do…speak up about it! If you don’t…shame on you. Jesus should be our moral compass, especially for our young people to see from adults. I would like to know your opinion…one way or the other. Really!
At the top of the message, in red ink, was the phrase “Bus Ministry Possibility – vote on Sunday in PM Service.”
Dr. Wester did not name the pastor who wrote the original e-mail. However, I spoke with Zac Collins, the stage manager for Rent, whose uncle and grandfather are also pastors in the community, who told him that they had both received the original e-mail and said that other pastor friends had received it as well. They told him that it was sent by Jim Zidan, Senior Pastor of Christ Community Church in Tullahoma.
Coleen Saunders and Melissa Shuran, the President and Vice-President, respectively, of the South Jackson Civic Center and co-founders of PACT, told me that while Pastor Zidan had twice visited the civic center seeking e-mail addresses for the leadership, no e-mail or letter expressing concern about or opposition to Rent had ever been received.
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I wrote to Pastor Zidan with questions about Rent and his e-mail. Here’s part of his response, verbatim:
I don’t believe or community has an interest or appetite for such fare; particularly for our children. Our previous PACT productions have been Oliver, Big River, Pinnochio, and Peter Pan. This is a pretty big deviation from those family friendly productions. I have attempted to speak to all the leaders of our theater community, including the current leaders of PACT. I even offered to speak on our local community television show to express my concerns and inform the public. No one seems interested in having this discussion so I have decided to sit and wait. I may write an editorial for our local paper, but I think I well wait until after the production. It is not my desire to sabotage this performance. I think it will fail financially. We’re it not for PACT money and the accompanying grants (for children’s theater) I don’t think they could even have produced this show. Ultimately it is up to our parents and local theater leadership; and apparently they are all asleep at the wheel.
I had asked Pastor Zidan whether he had ever seen or read Rent, but nothing in his response to me answered that question. He also did not respond to my question about what he hoped to achieve with his e-mail to his colleagues, or directly acknowledge it.
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It’s impossible to know how pastors in the Tullahoma area are responding to Pastor Zidan’s message. Some may choose to speak against the show at services this weekend (or vote about it, in Pastor Wester’s case); others may wish to speak in support of Rent. It’s impossible to know whether any of them are personally familiar with the show itself. Consequently, in the hope that this essay might find its way into the Tullahoma community and beyond, a few words in support of Rent, PACT and the cast and team behind the upcoming production – or any production, for that matter – seem warranted.
Rent is a modern classic Rent premiered in New York in 1996 at the Off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop, where it was such an immediate sensation that it moved to Broadway only a few months later, where it won, as mentioned above, the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honors in American theatre. It’s notable that the Pulitzer is rarely awarded to musicals; it occurs roughly once every 10 years. Rent ran for over 11 years on Broadway, playing to an audience of over 5 million people, and untold millions more on tour and in regional, amateur and school productions since then. It was made into a film and its final Broadway performance was recorded widely sold on DVD.
Rent is universal The reason Rent is still being performed almost 20 years after it was first produced is because while it is set very specifically at a moment in time and a particular place among a small group of young people in New York, it speaks to people from around the world. Every community is a mix of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, strengths and weaknesses; Rent’s success is because so many people can find themselves or their own families and friends on that stage. It can simply be embraced for what it is, exuberant and moving entertainment, or it can be used as a point of departure for conversations about ambition, family, illness, acceptance and loss.
Rent was born amidst tragedy Rent was the breakthrough work by the talented young writer Jonathan Larson – who didn’t live to see its success. Jonathan died suddenly of a rare heart condition just after seeing the final dress rehearsal of the show. He never saw it with an audience and was never able to experience its success. Rent was Jonathan’s gift to a world he left prematurely, at the age of 35.
Rent is about love Rent is the story of people who gather together to create, to share and to form their own family born of love and care for one another. Musician or stripper, performance artist or filmmaker, they travel the journey that so many young people travel, as they find themselves and their place in the world. Some are lost along the way, and we never know what happens to others after the play stops, but it is a show about seeing people lovingly for who they are, not judging them for their choices or even failings.
Creative artists deserve the opportunity to grow While PACT was begun with a focus on those under 18, it’s not unusual to find artists wanting to spread their wings beyond a previously defined mission, which most recently at PACT included a version of Robin Hood this spring. With the majority of the current cast between 18 and 20, PACT is giving young adults an opportunity to stay involved in the arts, and the leadership of the group the opportunity to explore even more of the theatrical canon. They have made it very clear that this is not their typical fare, so no one is surprised, with their intentions reinforced in the local press. As an independent organization, they have they right to determine their creative direction, with the ultimate arbiters of their work being their audience.
There are no scenes set in a strip club Just FYI.
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That the message from Pastor Zidan came out only this week would seem rather late in the game, with the show starting performances next week. In any event, I think it’s important to say that of course the pastors in Tullahoma have the right to communicate with one another and to preach as they see fit. I hope and trust that their messages are of love, acceptance, and understanding, not just for their parishioners, but for all people, including those who might mirror the characters in Rent, as well as those who want to see it or participate in it.
I also hope that those who might hear or read pastoral messages against Rent will take the time to read more about it, to listen to its songs, to consider its words as well, should they be pressed to judge it in advance. Most importantly, I hope everyone will remember that they have the absolute right to speak their minds, but that should the situation rise to the level of trying to stop Rent, which Pastor Zidan says is not his intent, they might keep in mind that those creating and participating in the show have the right to tell that story and to sing those songs for those who wish to experience it. Before any of us begin thinking to try to silence any voices, we must think about how we would feel if someone attempted to silence our own.
Rent may have, to some, a squalid setting, but is about struggle, friendship, community, equality, love, sacrifice, life and death, and even redemption. Those seem like themes worth exploring and embracing in every city and town, every day, in places of worship, in theatres and beyond.
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Disclosure: as I have noted in my writing in the past, I did not know Jonathan Larson, but came to know his parents and sister through my work at the American Theatre Wing and its assumption of the grant programs originally undertaken by the Jonathan Larson Foundation.
Note: I welcome respectful dialogue about this in the comments section of this site, however I will remove any personal attacks or rude remarks. This is not censorship; it is my right as the author of this post and the operator of this website to insure that dialogue remains constructive.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.