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.