Why Can’t My High School Put on Spring Awakening? (Or Any Other Show From The 21st Century?)

Choosing a musical for your local high school can be tricky. First, you need to assess who goes to your school. If you skip this step you may end up with an all-white Hairspray. You also should make sure there are options for your leads. No one wants a Christine Daaé who can only hit a D6 instead of her iconic E6. And don’t forget to scope out the community. You know, so your production of Rent: School Edition isn’t cancelled last minute by uncomfortable parents who failed to read the Wikipedia page until tech week, only to realize the musical is filled with the hottest controversial topics of the ’90s. Considering the latter, community plays a significant role in your musical’s final product. They’ll give you praise, feedback, and decide if they want to support your next production. Especially in a high school setting, it’s imperative not to offend – after all, it’s supposed to be a learning experience, not a political statement.

But in an attempt to exclude explicit language and themes from the high school stage, numerous schools rarely consider contemporary pieces, generalizing that newer shows are inherently improper. Never mind the Tony nominations, Pulitzer Prizes, or rave reviews, because it’s just easier to stick with shows from the Golden Age than to hash out the details of a contemporary script with the school board. So why exactly are musicals from the last decade tossed aside so often in a high school setting? Easy:

1. Ticket Sales

Name recognition makes us comfortable; we already know what we’re getting ourselves into. Accordingly, pieces like The Sound of Music and Beauty and the Beast are inevitably going to attract greater crowds – families will round up the whole gang plus some for a night of recognizable live theatre – and generate greater revenue. And then you have productions of 13 and Once on This Island – still great shows, but they will most likely create less buzz and sell fewer tickets solely because they are not movie-musical classics. Monetary gain is not exactly a noble cause, but especially in the name of theatre education, budgeting and funding are real threats to numerous programs, thus coloring the decisions of their theatre department.

2. Big Casts

Shows with little to no chorus roles like Little Women, Fun Home, The Last 5 Years, and Merrily We Roll Along cannot easily be translated to a cast of 40 kids. And excluding students from the stage goes against the mission statement of public high schools. But at the same time, roles as intimate and demanding as Cathy Hiatt or Jo March deserve to be taken on by young actors. While cutting kids from plays can damage their ego and create an air of elitism in theatre, limiting them to only a handful of characters can also pose a threat to an actor’s growth. It becomes a battle between the lesson and the performance. Should you pass around leads so everyone gets a chance to shine or is it handed off to the star of the theatre program to hold for three years? Can you cut 20 kids from your show because the material is too rigorous, ensuring efficient rehearsals but taking away stage experience from other students? A quick fix would be to pick shows with large chorus parts, something for everyone. Once again, contemporary shows are left out. They tend to utilize small casts but with equal character importance (Think Next to Normal or Spring Awakening), which just doesn’t fit the bill of your local secondary school. With the musical staples we all know and love, your leads get a few moments to themselves on stage but essentially no one is left out. And now you’re putting on Guys and Dolls for the 7th time.

3. Show Content

And then there’s censoring. The epidemic alone cuts out half of the musicals in existence from being performed by teenagers, and for plenty of good reasons. It could be traumatizing to require a minor to perform a certain scenes for an audience. Even though they are just characters and it is the theatre, taking one acting class doesn’t commit a student to a lifetime of the craft. These are amateur actors, not the cast of Matilda in 6 years. Some roles are too sad/creepy/emotional/frightening or just plain inappropriate to be portrayed by a 15-year-old (do high school productions of Company even exist?). I stand by censoring when it protects the actor from themselves, but not necessarily when it protects the audience. When we censor and cut and opt out for the sake of the audience, it asks a difficult question: Is this high school musical for the actors or the audience? And sometimes when we cater our energy to the audience, we fall short. We don’t grow and we don’t reach our full potential. We don’t explore and experiment. And trust me, I love Rodgers and Hammerstein but adding some Ahrens and Flaherty, Schwartz, and Tesori to the mix won’t hurt anyone’s repertoire.

This is the exact reason I advocate for the presence of contemporary theatre in all schools. In the Heights gave us Latino representation and rap showtunes. Rent shed light on the LGBTQA community based on real experiences. And Avenue Q showed us that there isn’t one way to put on a show. And contemporary theatre isn’t just about doing contemporary shows; it can also include fresh ideas embedded into the classics. Sure, maybe the audience expects an 1800s French-styled set design with their ticket of Les Miserables, but that doesn’t mean they’d be opposed to a modern day retelling. The face of musical theatre is constantly changing; it would be in the best interest of young actors for high schools to follow.

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