Selecting a High School Musical

‘Tis the season for high school musicals here in the suburban Washington DC area. I have students right now rehearsing or performing in “The Drowsy Chaperone”, “Cabaret”, “Les Miserables (School Edition)”, “Cinderella”, “Into the Woods”, and “Legally Blonde”. The schools and private theatre programs around here aim big – often too big.

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Einstein High School in Kensington, MD. It was thoroughly delightful. It was my first exposure to this show, but I thought it worked extremely well for the deep and wide talent pool of Einstein’s Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.

And then there’s “Cabaret” across town, also cast with high school students. Why, oh why? I can understand wanting a challenge, I can understand being attracted to a show of very high quality, I can understand picking a show you love – but recent high school productions of this, “Sweeney Todd”, “Parade” and “Chicago” just seem wrong to me.

There are themes that young people can fully grasp and realize in dozens and dozens of musicals, both old and new. Then there are shows that that young people may understand on many levels as an audience member as well as older people, but which THEY ARE NOT YET READY TO PERFORM.

Contrasts: We had a production of “Spring Awakening” here last fall that was really excellent. The somewhat melodramatic plot is actually about teens, as raw and sexual as it is. Those young people were able to convincingly portray those characters and tell that story. Then there is “Cabaret”. What teenager is ready to fill out the character of Sally Bowles, the hardened, 30ish world-weary show girl bound for ruin? And are they really going to have high school girls humping chairs as Kit Kat girls? And is a boy playing Emcee (lead and cover both 16) really going to give us the polymorphous perversity required, both sexual and political?

It’s not just about “adult themes”. It has to do with a progression of theatrical repertoire that takes into account maturity, complexity, and dramatic skill level. We would never have a 15 year old soprano sing Wagner arias, but there may be masterpieces by Handel or Rodgers and Hammerstein that would suit her just fine. She may have the range, musicality, and language skills for Wagner, but not the gravity, vocal maturity, and life experience that an excellent performance would require. Is it not the same in theatre? I am no expert in musical theatre production for high schools, but I wish that the very cynical, bitter, decadent, or hopeless themes would be left to the college and pro crowd, while high school performers hone their craft on repertoire that is appropriate for their age and level of understanding.

I’m not saying that we should make the kids do only juvenile material. There is darkness in “Oklahoma” or “The Sound of Music” or even “The Drowsy Chaperone” which I think high schoolers can do a great job with. But these do not have the crushing gloom of a “Sweeney Todd” or “Chicago” or “Cabaret” that encourage a student to imitate a professional performance rather than understanding the depth of the character that they need to pull out of themselves.


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