University Production of Rent Stirs Controversy With Altered Script

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29 Apr 2011

Since its New York debut in the mid-1990's and subsequent life as a licensed property, Rent, Jonathan Larson's pioneering musical about struggling artists living in Manhattan's Alphabet City, has, at times, caused controversy for tackling the subjects of HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and drug use.

Such controversy is absent at Towson University where the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical opened April 22 and will continue to run through May 6. But what did stir debate this past week were changes to Larson's original text.

The theatre blogosphere blew up following the first April 21 preview and April 22 opening performances of Rent, in which the final scene was missing roughly five lines of dialogue. For those unfamiliar with the musical adapted from Puccini's La Boheme, the character of Mimi dies and returns to life in the final moments of the script.

Director and faculty member Diane Smith-Sadak told Playbill.com that she removed the final lines where Mimi describes her near-death experience, creating a "more ambiguous" ending about Mimi's fate, in order to point toward the savage realities of people suffering from AIDS and addiction in the early 1990's (a time when many of the antiviral drugs that save lives today, were yet unavailable).

"When you look at what really happens in people's lives, the end wasn't really ringing as true to me as I wanted it to. I struggled with it," Smith-Sadak said. "Our Mimi did get up at the end of the production and work her way into the curtain call and it was Angel that woke her; it was just without the text. It hit a raw nerve with people… It's a two-hour-and-twenty-minute long musical, and we're talking about 45 seconds."



Several audience members who were in attendance on opening night spread the word about the excisions from the script, and the theatre chat boards lit up. Five cut lines quickly turned into Internet wildfire, with Smith-Sadak coming under fire.

Music Theatre International, which licenses the rights to the musical, was alerted of the infraction, and contacted Towson University theatre chair Jay Herzog and the university's legal counsel has also been involved. The breach of contract was met with a cease and desist notice: Either reinstate the lines as written or close the production.

"The contract is clear," MTI president Drew Cohen told Playbill.com. "You can make directorial changes, you can make scenic and design changes, and interpret the text and the score how you want to. But what you can't do is add, delete or modify the music or the text. In this instance this production deleted some of the text without permission."

MTI said that they are in a position to pass along requests for script changes to the authors and have done so in the past for various productions, but were not contacted by anyone at the university.

Smith-Sadak, who has been on the Towson staff since 1999 and is a playwright herself, said she had not seen the contract, which was signed by Herzog, according to the University's newspaper, The Towerlight.

Rather than cancel the production, Smith-Sendak regrouped with her cast and reinstated the five lines to their corresponding characters. "The cast, as far as college students go with a vast range of experiences, were really consummate professionals. [They] made the adjustment and we had it in front of an audience Wednesday night. It's been going well ever since," she said.

On April 26, The Towerlight printed a fervent open letter from Smith-Sadak defending her position to make alterations to the script and fending off critics who had not seen her production. The letter was followed by those from theatre chair Herzog and MTI's Cohen.

Smith-Sadak informed Playbill.com that James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop who helped develop Rent downtown in 1996, would be in attendance for the May 1 matinee at Towson, and she was always ready to stand by her vision with members of the creative team present.

The director also cited "countless" other productions of Rent she was aware of which altered the same moment in the script. MTI responded that they had never sanctioned any productions to alter that moment in the show.

Both Smith-Sadak and MTI noted the ironic junction of art and commerce in this instance, a subject central to the characters in Rent, who seek out ways to create and perpetuate art without any oversight or corporate control.

"It's a point worth making," Cohen said. "Ultimately, everything MTI does is at the direction of the underlying rights holders, in this case, Jonathan Larson's family. When a show is going to be put out there to the world to be performed by thousands of groups there has to be some level of vigilance out there – whether it's by the company or the family – to make sure that what is presented is what their late son and brother created and intended. We act on their behalf."

According to Smith-Sadak, "It's made us look deeper into the whole layer of Rent that is the struggle of these seven or eight principal  [characters] and their struggle to stay out of the commercial world. To try to find their own unique artistic voice without selling out. The play is all about that struggle for artistic freedom and artistic license and what that costs you. This has been an incredible life lesson on what it can potentially cost you to step out of the mainstream kind of rigidity of owned intellectual property."

Looking back Smith-Sadak said she regretted not having contacted MTI ahead of time to possibly open a discussion with the Larson estate. "My artistic eye clouded the business mind in myself," she said, but insisted that she wanted to return the focus to the cast and this particular production within the greater Baltimore community.

"Towson University is set in Baltimore County, [which] has one of the highest instances of new HIV cases in the U.S. It's the heroin capital of the U.S. We have a lot of issues that need to be addressed that are addressed in the play," she said.

"A lot of times when you see touring or regional productions of Rent, the casts are a bit older, which I can understand for professional reasons, but there's something really poignant about putting these college kids in. The characters are the age of the students," she added. "You think 'Oh, they're too young for the roles,' but I have a 21-year-old dance major playing Mimi, who's 19 [in the script], so our college kids are actually in some cases, a little bit older than those characters. They sit right in that world and they understand it."

Those interested in catching the production can visit the Towson University box office.