Now that the hard-working, good-looking students of Stanton High School in dreary Stanton, Pennsylvania have put on the musical “Spring Awakening” in the season finale of “Rise,” it will be the last show they ever do. NBC has canceled the TV series. Lou Mazzuchelli, the drama teacher played by Josh Radnor, will disappear from your TV after only two months and ten episodes — unless another network picks up the show for a second season.
But Lou Volpe lives on. For more than four decades, until his recent retirement, Volpe had been the director of the drama program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania; he and his program were the subject of a non-fiction book that inspired the TV series. “Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater” was written five years ago by Michael Sokolove, a journalist who had attended the high school, where he was one of Lou Volpe’s students.
The names of the teacher, the town, the high school, and the students have all been changed in the series (as has Lou’s sexual orientation – Lou Volpe is gay; Lou Mazzuchelli was given a wife and three kids.) But “Rise” has taken its cue from the real-life stories to a remarkable degree.
The fictional Lou’s choice of “Spring Awakening” was also the actual Lou’s. Volpe was the first high school drama director in America to put on a production of the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 19th century play. The show’s licenser, Music Theatre International, trusted Volpe to test a school version of the musical. Volpe was also the first to put on “Rent.”
In “Rise,” Lou recruits the football team’s quarterback to perform in “Spring Awakening,” which causes a rift with the coach. This may sound as if it’s lifted from a similar storyline in “Glee.” (In that series, Finn, played by the late Cory Monteith, was the school’s quarterback before he became involved in the glee club.)
But there’s a similar, real-life story in “Drama High.” The school’s star wrestler, deeply religious, wanted to play Jesus in Volpe’s production of Godspell. His wrestling coach said it would set a bad precedent to allow a member of the team to split his time like that…so the student quit the team. And it did set a precedent: The Truman High School drama program, according to the book, has unusual success in attracting athletes to participate in its shows.
To be sure, although Drama High author Sokolove gets writing credit on the series, the reality he chronicled was filtered through the sensibility (and commercial calculations?) of the show’s creators. In the opening scene of the first episode, which aired on March 13th, Lou Mazzuchelli’s young daughter is rapping to the opening number of “Hamilton.” In different circumstances, one might think this self-promotion, since “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Sellers is one of the series’ two main producers, in his first foray into television. But we’re talking “Hamilton” here, a Broadway musical that’s entered full force into the cultural mainstream; what else would a white pre-teen from a working class town be rapping?
Sellers’ influence was felt in the casting; many of the actors are Broadway veterans.
It soon became abundantly clear, however, that the tone and focus of the series was set by its other main producer, Jason Katims, who had been executive producer and showrunner of both “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” a TV series based on the true story of a high school football team in a small town in Texas. Although “Rise” might in outline seem to have been created in the mold of recent TV musical series “Glee” or “Smash,” it hewed far closer to “Friday Night Lights” in every way, down to the way it looked. “Rise” had the darker lighting of “Friday Night Lights” (rather than the shiny bright “Glee”) and camera work that took the same documentary style approach.
Unlike “Glee” or “Smash” or any other show about theater I can think of, “Rise” contains not an ounce of camp. Its earnest tone and lack of fabulousness are something it shares not only with “Friday Night Lights” but with both the author and the subjects of “Drama High.” At one point one of the regular student thespians is quoted in the book as saying “At other schools, it’s kind of the misfit kids who do theater…But most of us in Truman theater are — I don’t know what the word for it is — normal, I guess.”
Like “Friday Night Lights,” “Rise” focused on the struggles of the characters and their families — struggles involving familial breakdown, terminal illness, economic challenges, and everything from alcoholism to autism to teenage pregnancy to sexual orientation and gender nonconformity (these last in “Rise” but not in “Friday Night Lights.”) “Rise” had more scenes about football than you might expect from a show that’s supposed to be about theater. For better or for worse, the show’s main focus, and its primary appeal, wasn’t really about theater, just as “Friday Night Lights” wasn’t really about football. (There’s much more about theater — its practice, its purpose, its effect on the lives of Volpe’s students — in Drama High.)
“Rise” was also closer to “Friday Night Lights” than to any previous TV musical series in that nobody ever spontaneously broke out into song. When the characters sang in “Rise,” they were doing so at a rehearsal (or, in tonight’s episode, performing at opening night), singing songs from “Spring Awakening.” (and in tonight’s episode, a new song written by Sheik and Sater for their musical, “All You Desire.”)
The songs the characters in “Rise” were singing often presented parallels with what was happening in their lives, but they were carefully presented as happening in the real world, not in the magical world of musicals that requires a suspension of disbelief.
Could this work, a show ostensibly about theater told like a show about football? Why not?
But it didn’t catch on with the TV-viewing public, at least not in sufficient numbers to keep NBC happy. The number of viewers for “Rise” fell from 5.5 million in the first episode to 3.7 million in the ninth episode. Neither Glee nor Friday Night Lights dipped that low until their fifth seasons. I suspect it was especially damning, from the point of view of the NBC executives, that the “demo” rating – viewers from age 18 to 49 – fell from 1.23 to 0.70. By contrast, viewers for episodes of the hit show “This Is Us” numbered as many as 27 million (never fewer than eight million) with a demo as high as 9.0 (and never lower than 2.0) If the ratings are an accurate gauge, a show about young people couldn’t attract as many young viewers as a show primarily about middle-aged people.
Yet, those of us who made “Rise” a habit got drawn into it for much the same reason that people get caught up in “This Is Us.” It engaged us emotionally in the struggles of the characters, and the web of their relationships. One possible difference is that “This is Us” asks us to focus on a family of five characters, while “Rise” divided our attention among a school full of characters and their families. It became easier to track all of them as the series progressed; they fell into subgroups and subplots, although there was always some overlap.
Each of these subgroups gets a spotlight, and their subplots reach something close to a resolution in “Opening Night,” the episode that closes the season and (unless it’s saved) the series.
Here’s more or less a recap of the series and the final episode. If the summary sounds like a soap opera, the low-key intelligence of the acting, writing and directing offers a different experience when watching the show. Spread out over 10 hours, the stories are engrossing, and the characters will be missed.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and read the caption.
The Lilette Circle
Lilette Suarez, portrayed by Auli’i Cravalho. Her mother Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk) worked as a waitress until she’d had enough of her boss sexually harassing her. She also had an affair with the football coach, Coach Strickland (Joe Trippett), which broke up the coach’s family. Lilette became the girlfriend of the star quarterback Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), after Lou cast Lilette to play Wendla in Spring Awakening, and Robbie to play Melchior – the two leads. Robbie’s mother (Eisa Davis) has ALS. His father (Mark Tallman) left his mother, and married a younger woman. The father disapproves of Lilette, seeing her as a golddigger. Coach Strickland does not approve of Robbie’s two-timing him with the theater program. But Robbie overcomes his own doubts, and defies the adults to be both with Lilette and the show. During “Opening Night,” while they kiss on stage as MelchIor and Wendla, he whispers to her “I love you Lilette.” He doesn’t know yet that Vanessa has announced to Lilette: We’re moving to Philadelphia!
The Lou Orbit
Lou (Josh Radnor). His family, especially his teenage alcoholic son Gordy (Casey Johnson); his co-worker, assistant drama director Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who has worked for years in that position and wanted the top job; Principal Ward (Stanley Mathis, in a thankless role) gave Lou the position over Tracey, but also gives him a hard time – not so much because he cares, but because the school board and the PTA are complaining. Included in this group is Maashous (Rarmian Newton), a student who works the lights for the show. Lou’s family takes him into their home and all but adopts this teen who had escaped his indifferent foster family and was sleeping in the school. But now his mother, who was in prison, has been released.
Lou submits to the principal’s wishes and makes last-minute changes to make “Spring Awakening” more acceptable to the bourgeoisie – until the principal makes one demand too many…and Lou decides: The show must go on, as it is meant to be in all its raw honesty. His cast votes to ratify his decision.
The Simon Subplot
Simon (Ted Sutherland), cast as the gay character Hänschen.in Spring Awakening, at first resists because (he tells Lou) of his religion, but then reverses himself and plunges in. His father Robert (Stephen Plunkett) objects, and takes him out of the school, and sticks him in a Catholic prep school. His mother Patricia (Stephanie J. Block) at first backs her husband. But Simon defies them, and winds up back in the school, and back in the show, and we realize that his resistance to the role was more complicated than he let on. He is struggling with his sexuality, using Annabelle (Shannon Purser) as his beard, but is in reality attracted to his Spring Awakening co-star, whom he must kiss on stage, Jeremy who plays the character Ernst (Sean Grandillo, who ironically gets little screen time, but was in fact one of the stars of Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway, playing the voice of Otto.)
Patricia, suspecting that Robert’s anti-gay attitude is based on more than just his religious faith, changes her mind and backs her son.
The Coach’s Game Plan
Although Coach Strickland is distributed throughout other subgroups, he probably deserves his own, because his affair with Vanessa (see the Lilette Circle) has caused his marriage to break up, and affects his relationship with his daughter Gwen (Amy Forsyth.) While he’s making things hard for Robbie, he’s very supportive of Lou’s son Gordy (see the Lou Orbit), who is on the football team. Gwen becomes the object of Gordy’s affection, and, although (as Lou tells his son), Gwen is out of Gordy’s league, there is some suggestion that the relationship will be reciprocated beyond just the one-night stand they had.
The Michael Thread
Michael Hallowell (Ellie Desautels) is a trans man who became estranged from his best friend, too concerned with his own issues, but reignites their friendship when he realizes that his friend Sasha (Erin Kommor) has gotten pregnant. Tracey (Perez) is also supportive of Sasha. Michael plays Moritz in Spring Awakening. The character is supposed to commit suicide in the musical, but the PTA insisted he just become really sad. Lou overruled them. Sasha is so impressed with Michael’s performance that she starts to see him in a new light, and, backstage, they kiss.
Near the end of “Opening Night,” which is full of musical numbers from “Spring Awakening” (more singing than in any previous episode), the superintendent of schools meets Lou backstage. He apologetically informs Lou that, because of the heat he will get for the edgy show, and because he has to make budget cuts anyway, he’s going to be forced to shut down Stanton Drama. And that, apparently, is how “Rise” ends.