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Connecticut: Rent Overdue in Trumbull as Students Defend Sexually Frank Rock Opera

By Emily Ike, SIECUS Program Research Intern

A half hour drive from New Haven, city of legendary Broadway theater tryouts, the Connecticut  town of Trumbull was recently divided over cancellation of a planned high school production of the stage musical Rent. Trumbull High School Principal Marc Guarino announced the cancellation, citing the lack of a school-wide “plan” for its staging.[1]

Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning rock opera, first performed on Broadway in 1996, covers love, drug use, and HIV in the lives of both gay and straight characters. Trumbull High School’s Thespian Society planned to stage a ‘school edition’ which cuts out the profanity of the original. Thespian Society president Larissa Mark lamented, “Mr. Guarino has told me he’d like to do Rent at some point, but needs more of a plan [to involve experts who can speak about HIV and other issues]…But I don’t believe we need more than a year to plan this.”[2]

Some members of the school community challenged Guarino’s assertion that the cancellation was due only to a lack of adequate planning, and suggested that it was more about school administrators’ fear of Rent’s frank sexual content.

Students angered by the principal’s decision talked of fomenting a spontaneous ‘Rentbellion’ to express their displeasure. But in her role as Thespian Society president, Mark refrained from stoking the controversy: “I didn’t think ‘Rentbellion’ was going to help our case…We had to create an organized response. I said that students should speak with their parents about this and not act brashly.”[3] Over the course of two days, students collected 1,516 signatures (roughly two-thirds of the school), and distributed a survey to the Trumbull community to gauge support for the production; over 400 responses were collected. Students also created a Facebook page in support of Rent, generating over 4,200 “likes.”

The controversy not only caught the attention of local media, but made headlines in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and on blogs in the theater world. Blogger Howard Sherman, former Executive Director of the American Theater Wing, shared the reaction of original Rent actress Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the character Mimi on Broadway. Asked whether she thought that Rent was too controversial for high schools, she said:

“In this day and age, I can’t think of anything more appropriate. It’s perfectly designed for high school. To me, a loving awareness of the issues, sexuality, health, AIDS in particular is important. Rent is the perfect way to open up dialogue with young people. The cancellation of a production that people have been looking forward to is an obvious sign that our educators don’t want to take on the responsibility of educating our young. They’d have to answer questions and they don’t want the questions raised.”[4]

Guarino responded to the groundswell by reevaluating his decision after speaking with Trumbull High’s assistant principals and reviewing the school edition’s script. He then issued a letter stating, “The learning opportunities are essential. To plan for these, I will be working collaboratively with various groups.”[5] He concluded by announcing, “I believe that this process can be accomplished during the 2013/2014 school year if the performance dates can be delayed to Wednesday, April 30, dress rehearsal, through Sunday, May 4.” [6]

Though initial reactions to Guarino’s change of heart were mostly positive, some students and parents voiced frustration. Jonathan Tropp, a parent of two Trumbull High thespians, worried that under the new timeline “the kids will be entirely consumed” with other school obligations.[7]

Several Trumbull parents released a letter praising Guarino’s turnaround, but also noted,

 “This production had long been planned, and we are confident that it can be ready to go in March [2014] as scheduled so that our children, who have numerous heavily demanding curricular and extracurricular activities later in the year, including…spring athletics and music activities, not to mention AP exams in May and final exams in June, will be able to participate.” [8]

At long last, Guarino backpedaled even on this matter, and by mid-December the FaceBook page ‘Trumbull for Rent’ announced that original March 2014 performance dates would be kept.


[1]Aaron Leo, “’Rent’ Will Go On At THS,” Trumbull Patch, December 10, 2013 accessed December 11, 2013 at http://trumbull.patch.com/groups/schools/p/rent-supporters-praise-herbst-guarino-over-commitment-to-show.

[2]Patrick Healy, “Connecticut High School Cancels Student Production of ‘Rent’,” New York Times, December 4, 2013, accessed December 11, 2013 at

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/connecticut-high-school-cancels-student-production-of-rent/.

[3]BWW News Desk, “Connecticut High School Students Rise Up After Principal Halts Production of RENT,” Broadway World, November 29, 2013, accessed December 11, 2013 at

http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Connecticut-High-School-Students-Rise-Up-After-Principal-Halts-Production-of-RENT-20131129.

[4] Howard Sherman, “How Not To Cancel Your High School Musical,” HESherman.com, December 4, 2013, accessed December 18, 2013 at http://www.hesherman.com/2013/12/04/how-not-to-cancel-your-high-school-musical/.

[5]Ray Bendici, “"Rent" Production Is Back on at Trumbull High School,” ConnecticutMag.com, December 10, 2013, accessed December 11, 2013 at

http://www.connecticutmag.com/Blog/Connecticut-Today/November-2013/RENT-Back-on-at-Trumbull-High/.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Leo, “‘Rent’ Will Go On…”

[8]Ibid.

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