The Next Great All-American High School Musical

January 18th, 2012 § 12 comments

While I am given to pontificating, I generally avoid prognosticating. However, I am prepared to make a prediction. I suspect many of you will agree with me. Here goes: I don’t think, at whatever point in the distant future it is released for stock and amateur stagings, that The Book of Mormon will see many high school productions. It may do quite well at the college level, but high school? Nope.

The reason is obvious (to me). Namely, that Mormon’s liberal use of profanity is unlikely to be acceptable in an high school setting unless commonly accepted public discourse devolves rapidly in the decades to come. Even with significant rewrites, it’s highly unlikely that “the best musical of this century” (to quote Ben Brantley of the Times) will be part of the school repertoire. ‘So what?,’ you ask. ‘It will have made a pile of money, and while that market is lucrative, it’s not about to make or break the show’s extraordinary success.’ True, and I cite Mormon primarily for the evident absurdity of the fundamental question.

Why do I even bring this up? Because having seen every new musical on Broadway for the past eight years, I find myself musing on the shows I did in high school, the shows being done in schools today and what may be done in the future. Guess what? Some of the most popular high school shows today are shows I did: Bye Bye Birdie, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and The Music Man. Others date back to that time (and before), but weren’t done by my school: Grease, Guys and Dolls and Once Upon a Mattress. This is not to say that newer shows aren’t popular: Seussical, Beauty and the Beast, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray regularly rank among the 10 most produced high school musicals, but the presence and persistence of 50 and 60 year old shows is noteworthy. (For data, I am relying on the annual survey by the Educational Theatre Association, parent of the International Thespian Society, since some of the licensing houses do not release rankings or specific numbers for comparison of the shows they represent.)

Some of you might be encouraged by the fact that there aren’t a lot of newer musicals on the list. ‘Musicals have become more challenging,’ you might say; ‘isn’t it wonderful that pieces like Grey Gardens and The Light in the Piazza have been given life and who would want to see them performed by 16-year-olds’? On one level, I agree. The expansion of the range of musical theatre beyond “musical comedy” is essential and it does not allow for every major musical hit to be right for high schools, the way Fiddler on the Roof and The Pajama Game once were.

Even today’s shows closest to classic musical comedies would have to be adjusted for high school productions, if the authors permit it. Should a teenaged girl be encouraged to sing “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” to fellow students and parents? Would teens get the satire of, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews”? Shows with casts made up predominantly of young people, like Spring Awakening and American Idiot, are too challenging in their content for all but the most open-minded schools, so a youthful cast does not denote that the show is therefore “age-appropriate.”

I am no prude (although I told my then 16-year-old niece, when asked, that her mother needed to take her to see Spring Awakening during its Broadway run; I would have been too uncomfortable). But the fact is that schools, fearing parental and community backlash, are forced to protect themselves and that sends them running for the cover of The Wizard of Oz (another high school perennial, believe it or not). They cannot afford to offend and there are copious sensitivities: earlier this year a Pennsylvania high school had to cancel a production of Kismet due to its favorable portrayal of Muslim characters. The list of popular plays, by the way, proves even more cautious and antique, with Our Town and The Crucible (admittedly great plays), as well as You Can’t Take It With You and Arsenic and Old Lace in the Top 10 for each of the past three years; I wrote a year ago of a school that was almost prevented from doing a play by August Wilson.

Political and social pressures narrow the field of what can be done in high schools today. Is that the sole reason why hit musicals and musicals that teens can perform are diverging?

As I acknowledge, there’s the expansion of the “musical” umbrella, which benefits artists and audiences alike, so it’s counterproductive to the art form to argue against that material. But there is the incursion of profanity and sexual content in certain cases on what are, essentially, stories with classic structure and messages (Avenue Q, anyone? “My Unfortunate Erection” from Spelling Bee?). Has high-profile musical theatre become like network television, pushing the boundaries to keep up with, or mimic, what’s available on pay cable or at the movies? Will that create an ever-increasing gap between our most popular musicals and what young people can undertake?

Subject and language are not the only barriers (and I should acknowledge that artists and licensing houses often prepare “school versions” so as not to miss this market, but some shows may be rendered impotent by cuts). We also face the musicals which are so bent on spectacle that they limit what many high schools can tackle; while stripping down certain shows may reveal their core strengths in some cases (I would love to see a simple Lion King or less opulent Miss Saigon), there are also shows which demand spectacle (say the magic tricks required for the upcoming Ghost or the necessity of sending carts and people flying as Titanic sinks), not so easy in these days of constrained arts budgets. Conversely, another barrier is the reduction in cast sizes in new shows (even as tech requirements may grow elsewhere); musicals like Side Show or Little Women will only appeal to small schools, or those with weak drama programs, since most high schools want big shows for the greatest inclusion of the student body.

A rare effort to craft a musical for all ages, but uniquely suited for junior high audiences, actors and musicians, Jason Robert Brown’s 13, had a short life on Broadway (I hope it lives forever in middle schools). Maybe building musicals that anticipate their future academic life isn’t economically feasible in the commercial marketplace. I think it’s not entirely a coincidence that the musicals of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are popular (if not always top 10) high school shows; there is a common thread of humanity and warmth that runs through Once on This Island, Seussical and Ragtime (not to mention sufficiently large cast sizes and gender and racial flexibility and opportunities). But they didn’t set out to write “high school musicals.”

I fear I’m coming off like an old man, yet I’m arguing for today’s teens to be able to explore their talent in new material by our best current musical theatre artists, not limiting them to the same chestnuts that I appeared in more than 30 years ago (even though the legacy of great musicals has real value). The question is whether the material is drying up, and whether we can do something about generating new musicals which are not bland, silly, homogenized works devised solely for school productions,  but are challenging and entertaining both in words and music, so that “family musical” need not be a euphemism for “children’s theatre” and the repertoire can benefit at both the professional and educational level. I don’t doubt that there are progressive, enlightened and adventurous high school drama programs out there, just not enough to tip the survey balance.

I have often said that there is a theatrical continuum that runs from Broadway right through to schools; fundamentally, the process of putting on a show at any level is the same, with money and experience being the key points of difference. I worry that this through-line is being lost and that unless producers and artists think about future talent and future audiences, we will be conditioning the next generation to desire and demand less on our stages, rather than more. After all, if they are exposed in their youth to only the most populist and/or timeworn musicals, if they play mostly Peanuts and Munchkins, will they ever aspire to, or have an appetite for, something greater?

Update: As a result of writing this post, I learned a great deal more about the high school repertoire, and especially school editions of shows like Avenue Q and Rent, which filter out the language and content that would be most problematic in a school setting, while retaining the core of the shows themselves. Done in collaboration with authors, or their estates, they help to bridge the content gap that concerned me. That said, I still don’t think we’re going to see The Book of Mormon in schools anytime soon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Rock/27102302 Michael Rock

    I think there will be a high school version of Book of Mormon.  As you say: ” I should acknowledge that artists and licensing houses often prepare “school versions” so as not to miss this market, but some shows may be rendered impotent by cuts”.  It will be a sad shadow of itself but it’s too big a market to ignore.  They will cut “Hasa Diga Ebo-i” and hire someone to re-write it and change all the profanity and it will be done in high schools and community theatres where Mormonism isn’t seen as overly threatening.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      It is possible to alter any show, the question is whether the authors will permit it. Trey Parker and Matt Stone has shown with South Park that they stand firmly by their creations and want to push the limits. I wonder whether they, along with their collaborator Bobby Lopez, would submit this hugely successful work for neutering just to make more money.

    • http://twitter.com/abroadwaycritic The Broadway Critic

      The show will be 30 minutes long! ;)

  • Heather Liberman

    I think this may be why my daughter has decided to direct a cabaret each fall at the high school where she teaches. It allows her to choose her favorite songs from more current musicals.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      That’s a very interesting perspective – that in order to have her students perform current material, it must be shorn of its dramatic context in order to make it acceptable. I suspect, however, that under any circumstances, she’s not having them perform a terrific song such as Spring Awakening’s “The Bitch of Living,” even though we hear the word often on TV and its been 35 or so years since Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” was bleeped by some AM radio stations.

  • Linda Roeder

    Thank you for your eloquent plea for age-appropriate, fresh, and exciting musicals for teenagers.  I absolutely agree with what you have written here! 
    Have you seen or heard of HOMEROOM the Musical, by Andrea Green and Selma Tolins-Kaufman (published by Samuel French)? 

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      Ironically, I think “age appropriate” has a far greater range than students are given credit for. As I mention in the piece, schools play it very safe for fear of offending even one parent or community group; thus students are often denied the opportunity to grapple with terrific material. What some parents may feel is age appropriate can unfortunately treat their children as sheltered and innocent, because the parents themselves cannot accept both the sophistication and in some cases maturity of many 17-year-olds, especially those who’ve taken a strong interest in the arts.

  • http://twitter.com/EddieLouise EddieLouise

    Interesting how this discussion parallels one on literature for the teen set. It seems to me, that the controlling adults are the true problem here – not the appropriateness of material from a teens perspective. The innocent teen years of our memory are already gone. 

    As an author who writes for teens and a teacher with experience in inner-city schools, what I hear constantly from the young people is a great frustration with adults presuming they know best for the kids without ever entering into a dialogue with them. I can say that no kid in my current group of students would be shocked by The Book of Mormon – they have all seen Southpark, the musical’s fouler older brother.

    Profanity, sex and other topics do not bear nearly the same weight of shame for our children as they do for us. It is parents and educators with an over developed sensitivity to these things that are the real stumbling block. As long as we persist in trying to shelter our children (ineffectively, I might add) we are telling them that they are not welcome to inherit our world. A teen never hears the ‘not yet’ which is attached to such censorship. 

    Perhaps what we need is teachers and drama coaches willing to stand up to their communities for the rights of their students. Perhaps what we need is a conversation with our young people and a growing understanding of their world, their perspective and their tolerances. And perhaps we need to encourage a commercial world where a broad variety of theater can flourish.

  • http://twitter.com/abroadwaycritic The Broadway Critic

    There’s nothing wrong for a student to fall in love with “The Music Man” or “Bye Bye Birdie”. My students loved performing in “The Wedding Singer” as much as they loved “Bye Bye Birdie”. This year they produced “Spelling Bee” and in the next month we start “Dames at Sea”. Good musical theatre will capture any audience, no matter on what age the show was written. 

    The range of shows that schools produce today is amazing — a school nearby just produced “Spring Awakening” (and changed some lyrics and the direction was different than Broadway) but it ultimately worked, while others stick to the classics because they SELL tickets. Another school produced “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables: School Edition”  in our area.
    Some high school musical theatre budgets rival any regional theatre any day.You ask if teens can “…explore their talent in new material by our best current musical theatre artists.”  What about all of the shows that you mentioned: “Hairspray”, “Millie”, “Little Women”, “Xanadu”, “Avenue Q: School Edition”, “The Wedding Singer”, “The Drowsy Chaperone” “Aida”, “Spelling Bee: School Edition”?? These are all shows from the last ten years and they are produced ALL of the time in the high school. There’s NO shortage of appropriate material for the high school level.Just because there are some shows that high school students can’t do, that doesn’t mean they are missing out. Isn’t that what college is for? I’m totally okay with NEVER producing “The Book of Mormon” at the high school level. That would be totally silly and missing the mark of what we do as educators. Just because a musical landed on Broadway doesn’t mean they were any good, nor any reason for a high school to perform them. Also, sometimes some musicals work in “New York” and not other places. As a producer at any theatre the first thing to be successful is: you have to know your audience and be able to know when to push buttons and when it’s smart not to. It’s the same with high school musical theatre. You have to know your students, the audience and the administration who is supporting your productions and pick shows that will please everyone.There’s also the whole new Jr. & “School Edition” that many schools use — “My Unfortunate Erection” is now “My Unfortunate Distraction” and that is something the writers of “Spelling Bee” changed. Same has happened with “Avenue Q”, “Les Mis”, “Aida” and others.

    “…musicals like Side Show or Little Women will only appeal to small schools, or those with weak drama programs, since most high schools want big shows for the greatest inclusion of the student body.” Just because the entire school body doesn’t want to perform in the high school musical theatre program, does not denote that the program is weak, by any means. And some schools do two musicals – a smaller cast size and a larger show that can include everyone. “Little Women” can have a cast between 11-20 and even more if you wanted to add them in. The same way many schools produce “Charlie Brown” – they add every single Peanuts character known to man. Both of the shows are not subjected to only schools with “small” or “weak” programs. 

    By the way, “13”, while written for middle/high school performers, might ruffle a few feathers because of content. It’s rated PG on the MTI website, and I know there is some content that might be offensive to a middle school audience. (And the other problem with that show, is that high school age students aren’t really interested in being in a show about 13 year olds…)

    Basically what I am saying is that every high school musical theatre producer/director/choreographer out there should find a show that FITS their students talents and that will sell tickets. If that happens to be “Beauty and the Beast”, “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Spring Awakening”, then so be it. Students are going to fall in love with musical theatre the same way we did as kids. You introduce them to a show, create the unbreakable family bonds as they work and perform together, and then generally they start looking into other shows. 

    The same happened to me: “The Music Man” started it, then I saw “Evita” and loved it and then I was introduced to “RENT” and I fell in love with musical theatre forever. It took me over 10 years to perform in “RENT” but I’m glad I waited; I actually understood the material I was performing. And that’s the beauty of all of this.

    (Sorry if this is long and a bit winded… but this is stuff that I think about constantly.)

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    Of all the days, today’s the one where my 10yr comes in and asks out of nowhere, “What do you think is the funniest song in Avenue Q?”

    Admittedly, we used to listen to it in the car when he was tiny, and he’s not unfamiliar with it, but it’s been a long time since he’d heard it.  Turns out one of his classmates saw it on tour recently, and they spent all of lunch today giggling over the “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” song.  Good thing that’s one of the few PG rated songs in the score…

    He’s thinking about singing it in the next talent show.  We’re thinking not.

  • http://www.emilyballcicchini.com/ Emily Ball Cicchini

    Don’t you think some of this has to do with copyright law and industry practice?  I understand that Phantom of the Opera didn’t become available to High Schools until LAST YEAR.  That’s only after all the Bus and Trucks went around for what, 10-15 years?  It’s not that High Schools don’t want to do new musicals.  It’s that they can’t get the rights, and they couldn’t afford them if they could get them.

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