Recently, Diane Smith-Sadak, a theatre professor at Towson University stood helm at the school’s production of “RENT”. This should have been a simple matter, but it is slowly building steam as a watershed moment in educational theatre.
The short version? Sadak deleted five lines at the end of Act II and changed one line of lyric. Not a big deal right? Well, if you are at all familiar with the show, you can guess what she changed. The problem came when she got caught, and MTI (RENT’s licensing agency) threatened lawsuit.
If you want to read her ( Sorry, I just gagged a little) “defense” then go here and read her letter (along with a surprising spam of comments). Here is my response to her:

There are a couple of issues here, but before I get to them I want to confess, at the outset and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a writer of musical theatre. This biases me. I understand that. Now, let’s move on.

The argument that “Tickets were selling” (etc.) is ridiculous because the “new ending” (more on that in a moment) wasn’t selling the tickets. The name of the show was selling tickets; the RENT “brand” if you will was causing those tickets to fly out of the box office.  It’s remarkable arrogance to credit ticket sales of an existing brand – especially one so young – to an altered ending no one knew about.

More importantly, the “tortured/persecuted artist” defense is laughable.  The moment you go futzing with the text – nevermind MAJOR plot issues – you’re putting yourself in the role of writer, not director.  Short version: YOU’RE NOT THE WRITER! The director’s job is to interpret what the writer has written.  You failed when you tried to rewrite the ending.

As for the “new ending” itself, had you done your homework on the show you would have learned that Larson wrestled with this very decision.  There even exists a draft of the show wherein Mimi dies.  It almost made it to the final version.  Why isn’t it there?  Because a decision was made BY THE WRITER that to leave the audience with a sense of hope IN THE FACE AND IN SPITE OF this terrible disease was more important than “reality”.  Incidentally, this attitude was brought on by meetings he attended (think “Life Support”) where he was confronted by a man who explained that he was “living with, not dying from AIDS.”  Your cavalier dismissal of this decision cheapens his memory and his work on this show, no matter how much you might claim the contrary.

Finally, you claim to aspire to inspire your students.  Well, how about this: inspire them to create their OWN work and not rip off someone else’s.  Consider:

“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to retool the ending of LOST so that it makes sense and answers questions.” No… That’s not how that line goes… I remember…
“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to remake ‘The Godfather’ so that Michael can make it out of the family and go on to live a successful life as an honest politician and statesman who does noble things for the good of all.” No… That’s not it either… What did he say? Oh, yeah…
“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to finish MY OWN FILM!”

It’s a travesty what you have done in the name of “creating magical moments of Art.”   Also, you could try to convey that when you break the law, especially one you KNOW exists (and you really need to stop with that B.S. ” I never saw the contract” stuff, because 1) it’s insulting and 2) “Do Not Alter” is ALL OVER those scripts) you should expect to be called on it.  In all honesty I think you should be fired; not for changing the ending of “RENT” (which, just by the way, I think is a good change.  But that doesn’t mean I think it should be done.  The music is all wrong after that.) but for being a horrible example to the students in your charge.

So, here’s my question to you nice folks taking time out to read the Blahg: Was I too harsh?  Was I not harsh enough?  Where would/do you stand on this issue?

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