Donna Letzter, the theater director at West Aurora High School in Aurora, Ill., has put on ambitious shows in the past like Cats and Les Misérables, and last year she even figured out a way to get a helicopter to lift off the stage for a production of Miss Saigon. But that was kid stuff compared her challenge this spring: staging the nation's first licensed high school edition of Rent. Though the script had been pruned of most of the roughest material, this is still a musical in which most of the characters are either on drugs, suffering from AIDS, or having sex with members of their own sex. Yet a precautionary letter she sent to parents of the cast seemed to defuse any outrage ("You go girl!" one parent wrote back), and the local paper gave the production a thumbs-up even before it was staged early this month. "The newspaper said, thank goodness the kids are dealing with the issues," says Letzter. "Somebody's not shying away from topics that are difficult."
In high school auditoriums where Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls once ruled, times are changing. For one thing, the spring high school musical these days is increasingly likely to be, quite literally, High School Musical the Disney Channel hit that is now one of the most produced high school shows and has had nearly 2,500 amateur productions since September 2006. But while stalwarts like Grease and Bye Bye Birdie still top the schools' most-popular list (Little Shop of Horrors was actually No. 1 for 2007), a growing number of high schools are turning to more adventurous fare for their theatrical rite of spring: big, adult epics like Les Miz; irreverent satires like Urinetown; dark musicals like Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. "There's a sense of we want to do something new and edgy," says Jeff Knoedler of Newton South High School outside Boston. "There's only so many times you can trot out Oklahoma! Our kids are doing musicals starting at camp since the fifth grade. They've already been in Fiddler on the Roof twice."
Another sign that high school musicals are growing up: they've acquired that inevitable trapping of sophistication, their own awards. The Cappies were created in 1999, after the Columbine massacre, to encourage and recognize achievement in high school theater. Now they've grown to 17 regions around the country and three cities in Canada. Schools that choose to participate submit one or two productions apiece (plays as well as musicals), which are reviewed by teams of student critics who then vote electronically for their favorites. This year's nominations in 37 categories were just announced, and the awards will be handed out in a gala at Washington's Kennedy Center on June 8.
The new vitality of high school musical theater can be traced, at least in part, to the popularity of reality TV shows like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, as well as to Broadway's new wave of family shows, from The Lion King to Wicked which have turned on a new generation to the possibilities of theater. Also helping broaden the repertoire is the advent of specially adapted school versions of recent Broadway shows that are either too unwieldy like Les Miz or too racy like Rent for most schools. (Some shows even have elementary- or middle-school versions.) Some teachers contend, moreover, that youngsters in the new millennial generation are especially drawn to theater. "Today's kids are more team-oriented, and tend to be more upbeat," says Jane Strauss, National Vice Chair of the Cappies, Inc. "There's a tremendous emphasis on teamwork, on wholesomeness, on discipline, on hard work. You can't get much more disciplined, hard teamwork than in musical theater."
Putting on a musical is also a good way to draw together the student body and the community. "What people are realizing is when you do a musical at your school, it's not just about the kids in the cast," says John Prignano, senior operations officer of Music Theatre International, which licenses shows for all secondary productions, including schools. "It's about the entire school. It's about the kids involved doing the advertising, the marketing, the tech work, the costume work. And that extends out to the community, because they reach out to parents who also support in helping build stuff." Indeed, in sharp contrast to the cost-conscious commercial theater, high school directors seek out shows with the biggest casts possible. "You want as many opportunities for as many kids as you can have," says Christine Travalino, theater director at Pittsburgh Perry High School, which put on Urinetown this year. "A lot of the older shows just don't have enough parts in them." Letzter of West Aurora High says she's long wanted to do Into the Woods Sondheim's dark twist on old fairy tales but doesn't feel the cast is big enough. "No matter how you cut it you're only going to get 18 kids in there unless you have a chorus of wolves and pigs," she says. "And then it becomes ridiculous."
Doing edgier shows can still get you into trouble with conservative school administrators or community groups. A high school in Stevens Point, Wis., had to cancel a planned production of Urinetown in 2006 when the school administrators decided it wasn't appropriate for kids. An Indianapolis high school production of Ragtime had to battle with local clergy, black leaders and school officials over the musical's use of racial epithets, sexual and religious references. Jesus Christ Superstar has drawn criticism from some religious groups. And when a private school in suburban Baltimore offered a unique racial twist on the casting of Big River Huck Finn was played by a black student and the slave Jim by a white one the licensing agency for the show balked at allowing a scene from the show to be performed at the Cappies Awards. (It eventually relented.)
But school directors view these more adventurous shows and approaches as learning opportunities. High school versions often come accompanied by study guides; a production of Annie can help educate kids about the Depression and FDR's economic policies; Les Miz can be a window for a comparison of the revolutionaries of 19th century France with the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square. Travalino says her school's staging of Urinetown about a future dystopia where citizens have to pay to pee had an educational angle as well. "We have a student who started a recycling program," she says. "I thought, well, this show is perfect; it has to do with taking care of the environment and what can happen to it."
Just as relevant to the kids, these hipper shows are helping move musical theater out of the nerdy backwater of the high school activities. "The homecoming king and queen at our school are both drama people – not the football player and the cheerleader," says Stacy Hansen, theater director at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. "For so long, if you were in drama, you were a nerd. Now it's the cool thing to do."
Reported by Lina Lofaro/New York and Steven Gray/Aurora, Ill.
Top 10 High School Musicals
Old faves dominated the list of the 2007 season's most performed shows
1. Little Shop of Horrors
2. Seussical, the Musical
3. Thoroughly Modern Millie
4. Beauty and the Beast
5. Disney's High School Musical
7. Fiddler on the Roof
8. Bye Bye Birdie, Oklahoma! (tie)
10. Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls (tie)
(Source: Educational Theatre Association)