Last Christmas, I got one of my favorite gifts ever: the complete Broadway soundtrack to Rent. I have listened to the soundtrack an estimated 475 times. At one point, the CDs disappeared — I think my family hid them. No worries: I had already ripped them to my computer.
One of the things I love about the Broadway version, as opposed to the movie, is that it really is an opera. Unlike, say, The Sound of Music, or Into the Woods, you can follow almost the entire plot of the musical simply from the recording.
It has turned into a great — if unlikely — teaching tool.
I have preteens, late elementary and middle school kids. They are getting the standard “Just Say No” drugs and alcohol education, and the older is beginning to get AIDS and sex-ed talks. (Even in California, abstinence only education has hit.) I have a great problem with the way these are taught. First of all is the simple excessiveness: one child told me I shouldn’t use ammonia-based cleaning solution because a D.A.R.E. officer told him it was a bad idea. But more importantly, I think they teach kids to view others with a lack of compassion.
It starts out “Using drugs and alcohol is bad, using drugs and alcohol is stupid.” It turns into “Stupid people use drugs, bad people use drugs.” What happens then when a kid is confronted with someone who uses drugs or alcohol? Either they demonize the user as being bad or stupid, or they discard what they are taught about drugs or alcohol, not all of which is bad.
Which is where Rent comes in. While I don’t play all of the soundtrack for them (among other things, I skip “La Vie Boheme” because I really don’t want to have a discussion about what S&M is), and I’m not keen on the bad language, I do play enough to get a sense of the characters.
Enough to get a sense that Mimi is not a bad person. Roger is not a bad person. They are experiencing consequences of their choices — and some of those choices were and are bad. Mimi’s continued use of heroin, in particular, is a bad choice, to the extent it is a choice, given the nature of addiction. Which led me and my youngest to have a discussion of addiction, and why someone would make such choices, and how that doesn’t mean they are beyond help.
It has also proven useful in talking about HIV/AIDS. About what HIV is and does. How about how you cannot get AIDS from casual contact (misinformation they picked up from their peers). About how AIDS is a disease, not a moral judgment, regardless of how you contracted it.
The question of homosexuality has been very easy to deal with: when asked if Angel was Collins’s boyfriend, I simply said yes. And whether Maureen and Joanne were girlfriends, likewise. (Both of which led to my happiest parenting moment recently: when my youngest son heard on the radio of a school group arguing for the right to have materials for their afterschool club about how homosexuality is a sin, he responded, “Why do they care if people are gay? It’s not like it hurts them any. Why can’t they mind their own business?”)
I wish I could write to Jonathan Larson and tell him how important his work is. Wherever he is in the afterlife, I hope he knows.