Monday, March 21, 2011

Where Have All the Musicals Gone?

Despite the fact that the production of Grease I directed just finished its final performance just about 24 hours ago, I have already begun the search for next spring's musical. My music director and I have thrown some titles around, and I have developed a sort of "short list" of shows I want to listen to and read before nailing down something solid. I like aiming for a decision in early fall so that I can announce the "season" to students when they start school and spend time generating excitement for the musical (even while we're working on a fall play).

One of the shows on the "short list" was The Wedding Singer. I love the movie, it has strong name recognition with the kids because they love the movie, too, and I really loved the idea of doing a show in total 80's camp. (I was the same age my students are now in the 80's, and it would be fun to relive those times.) I got my hands on a copy of the cast album (okay, I ordered it used through amazon -- I don't want it to sound like I'm out there boosting CD's or anything) and popped it into the car stereo on my way home from work today (which, amazingly, occurred before dark on a GORGEOUS day). Within minutes, I knew this was NOT the show for us.

It's not the quality of the show that made me instantly cross it off the list. I actually really liked the music -- it was cute and catchy and had a great sense of humor. The problem is that it also is filled with the kind of stuff that could easily get me removed from my position as Drama Club director -- sex, drugs, profanity, et cetera. Even though I know my kids wouldhave fun with the show, that my music director and I would have fun with the show, there's just no way we could get away with it. It's not particularly family friendly and would likely leave a lot of parents and administrators unhappy if we were to ask a high school girl to stand up onstage and sing, "My body's an amusement park; the first ride's on me."

And it got me to thinking about the state of the American musical. I think of the new musicals I've seen in the past ten years or so. I've seen some pretty great stuff -- Spamalot, Wicked, Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde, et cetera -- but I don't know that I've seen anything that could be done on my high school stage. The shows are either too risque or far too technically ambitious for us to pull off with our limited space, resources, and staff. Instead, we keep dipping back into the classics. The rest of our short list features songs that debuted way before I was born. They're great shows, enduring shows, but there's something sort of sad in knowing that Grease may be the most contemporary show I ever get to direct. When you also factor in that most kids don't walk through the doors of our high school with a tremendous knowledge about musicals, and it makes it harder to get kids pumped about, say, Damn Yankees or Anything Goes. With Grease, I had a huge built-in name recognition. I mean, I was CHEERED when I announced that show last fall. Will the kids be even remotely jazzed if I stand in front of them the first week of September and say we're doing Damn Yankees? Or Brigadoon? The shows they DO know are shows that just aren't feasible due to casting limitations (the kids would love to do Hairspray, but our school doesn't have the, um, diversity that show requires), inappropriate content (the biggest request I get is for Rent, and the kids never seem to understand why it might be a challenge for me to put a kid onstage in drag...or ask a teenage girl to play an HIV-positive stripper) or those pesky technical limitations (the other show they request like crazy is Phantom of the Opera). Before this year, we did two pretty obscure shows (She Loves Me and Wonderful Town), and it was a little challenging to drum up interest in the kids and in audience. We had huge houses for Grease, but unfortunately, we can't do Grease every year.

The thing is that the high school musical is a tradition. How many actors got their starts in productions of Grease or Oklahoma or, yes, Damn Yankees? It's a chance for kids to get involved in the arts and gives schools a chance to highlight the artistic talents of their students. For some kids, this may be the only time they step foot on a stage. It's disconcerting, then, that the musical theatre world seems to have forgotten that and has moved increasingly toward shows that are impossible to pull off at that basic grass roots level. The things that work on the New York stage won't work in a Midwestern high school, and some of us directors get tired of running through the same list of shows. It would be terrific to get the kids into something new, something modern. It would be a great way to pull in audiences and to engage new kids in the fine arts. The problem is that the new and modern shows just aren't there for us the way they were years ago, and so we're stuck with the classics that don't feel as fresh and relevant to kids the way they did decades ago.

My challenge to the theatre world? Step up! Stop putting spectacle over substance and give us shows that we can actually do realistically. Look at what is currently playing on Broadway. Is there a single show that you could picture happening on a typical high school stage? If Julie Taymor can't make the tech in Spider-Man work, how can Illinois high school drama director? What high school teacher is going to be able to keep a job after launching a production of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? What high school kid will be able to tackle the rigors of Next to Normal? How can a largely white, smalltown high school ever hope to pull off In the Heights or Memphis? We can't, and we also can't attract audiences by doing the same old stuff...and if we can't attract audiences, we can't fund future shows. It's kind of a nasty little cycle there. Please remember that there are a lot of us out here who are not New Albany High School who can launch a $165,ooo production and still make a profit. Help us help you. Our kids will eventually be the ones gracing your professional stages. Help us get them there by giving us shows that will ignite that passion and send them out to find you. Remember that you need us just as much as we need you.

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