Recently, we learned a Summerville Town Councilman tried to cut funding to the Flowertown Players thanks to their January production of the musical Rent. The councilman was offended by Rent's raunchy language and, more than likely, its raunchy content. Thankfully, council refused to punish Flowertown, as they should have. There is no room for censorship in the Lowcountry. Rent may be ugly and vulgar on the exterior, but it's beautiful at its core. And at the heart of the musical is a message of love and perseverance.
Before we talk about censorship, though, why don't you come with me on a journey back in time to my senior year of high school. Grunge was in, big hair was out, and Rent was a smash hit on Broadway. Across the river in the 'burbs where I grew up, a friend and I fell in love with Rent's soundtrack. We spent a lot of time together that year, and we listened to Rent constantly. I still know most of the songs by heart.
For Christmas, our mothers got together and bought us tickets to the show. A month later we trekked into the city and saw the original cast in Rent. Looking back, I can't believe how lucky I was that day. The show was a masterpiece, the actors and actresses otherworldly. It became the standard by which I judge all musical theater. That's why I love Rent. Here's why you should, too.
Jonathan Larson, Rent's creator, was a struggling playwright living in the East Village in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His life was filled, by virtue of his profession and his geographic location, with the colorful characters who would later find life in his musical. Some were drug addicts. Some were clean. Some were straight. Some were gay.
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In those years, New York City was a grim, gray place. Beach closings were commonplace due to hypodermic needles in the sand, Chinatown was off-limits due to gang violence, and 42nd Street was full of hookers and junkies. It was also the height of the AIDS epidemic, and a positive diagnosis was a death sentence. This was Jonathan Larson's world. He watched a group of friends pass away from AIDS, one by one by one. There was nothing he could do to stop it.
Rent is that world. It's ugly. It's vulgar. The characters are living in squalor. They're starving and cold and have death sentences pressed against their shoulders. But the core of Rent isn't ugliness and death. It's not vulgarity. No, if you really listen, if you get past the crude humor, you'll find a much more beautiful message. You'll find love. You'll find friendship. You'll find people living their lives despite all the hardship. You'll find joy and rapture. At it's core, the message of Rent is simple: you take care of me, and I'll take care of you. To censor away a story like this is to miss out on beauty, on love, on life.
Since moving to Charleston, I've been blown away by not only the quality of the local theater scene, but by its bravery. Companies like PURE, Threshold, and the Village Repertory Company take on shows that push boundaries. The Testament of Mary, 33 Variations, Arcadia — these are not easy shows. Charleston theaters offer local audiences choices other than Guys and Dolls or Annie. I respect them, including Flowertown, for the choices they make.
But if, bit by bit, they begin to feel the pressure of local censorship, then what? What will happen? Will we maintain our status as one of the region's top theater communities? Can we host the country's largest arts festival each year if the shows we court could ultimately be turned away by politicians? The answer is simple. We won't, and we can't.
Let's celebrate Flowertown for taking a chance on a huge, ugly, beautiful show and their ability to transform the Lowcountry, even for a few nights, into something different, something from which we can all learn. Don't force them to live in Flowertown's past. Instead, let them keep moving toward a future.