Do You Hear the People Sing?: The Modern American High School Musical
By Matt Sigl
May 16, 2008
I sit with program in hand rapturously anticipating the show about to come. My heart tittups to the inchoate rumblings from the orchestra pit as the musicians tune. I pour over the actors' bios with the fervor of a Talmudic scholar, analyzing their past credits for hints as to what performances await me. When the lights dim and the curtain rises I am enveloped by that unique sense of awe and delight that only comes from live theatre. Am I sitting in the St. James Theatre on 44th street or the Pantages in Hollywood? Is it the new Broadway smash? Or perhaps it's a downtown gem, beloved by critics and attended only by theatre aficionados desperate to catch the magic before it "transfers?" None of the above. In fact, the show for which I am feeling such excitement is almost destined to be, by any objective standard, badly performed, poorly staged and lugubriously long. It's Les Miserables at a public Southern California High School. This is what theatre is all about.
For many, many laymen (those not in the business we call show) the high school play is the most intimate interaction they ever have with theatre, particular musical theatre. Many a banker, doctor, army officer, and lawyer will have the vague recollection of playing Arab in West Side Story or Doc Gibbs in Our Town; a murky but fond recollection tucked in their memory banks between downing jolt cola to cram all night for a chemistry test and dry humping to The Hills Have Eyes at the local drive-in. The high school play is a permanent fixture within the unique cultural tapestry that is the modern American High School. For most, the show is just another extra-curricular event for nerds to congregate, little different from mathletes, chess club and "Odyssey of the Mind," (which always sounded to me like the title to a long lost Electric Prunes album). The single yearbook page dedicated to it is a testimony for all time to its having been done. And for these decent folk who had their one brief moment in the spotlight (literally), perhaps they attend a play or musical sporadically as adults, but there is little lasting interest in the art form.
It can be oh-so different. For a select few, the high school play is far more than a mere chance to socialize and have after school fun. For these maniacs it is nothing less than an out-of-town Broadway tryout. It is a chance to finally indulge what will soon become, if it is not already, a chronic obsession. For drama geeks, the school day becomes little more than a warm-up to rehearsal, the show itself more important than senior prom and maybe even the graduation processional. I know. I was one of them.
What typifies the best of high school theatre is pure chutzpah: The unending ambition of the performers and the artistic staff to treat what is, in perspective, an insignificant little project seen by a select and unrelentingly forgiving audience, with a focus and seriousness that betrays its participant's delusions of grandeur. After all, the material being performed is not amateurish: the best of Broadway trickles down to the high school cafetorium -- it's the dreck and flops that are forgotten and go unperformed. These brilliant shows can inspire in even the most novice performer a deep burden of responsibility to the material. Luckily for the nervous student actor they face the most forgiving audience they could ever hope for. There is no John Simon in the audience waiting to eviscerate the actors with unrelenting viciousness (an imaginary scenario which provided the basis for the delightful David Sedaris story "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol", in which a children’s Christmas pageant is reamed by the titular critic who shares Mr. Simon’s devastating panache.) Indeed, almost unique to student productions is the deep inter-connectedness between performer and audience where literally, like the Grover’s Corners being portrayed on stage, everyone knows everyone else.
Not only is the love of theatre (for a young person especially) a niche interest but the very recognition of its limited and marginalized appeal only contributes to the furor and passion with which drama nerds pursue their hobby. Its devaluation by the masses is something to be corrected and so, with characteristic flair, budding thespians immerse themselves in their craft, combating the zeitgeist as best they may. Even the most nascent theatre lover knows all too well that the art form is a perpetual invalid; nary has a generation gone by without lamentations of its growing irrelevance and eventual expiration. Ages ago it was movies that threatened, then it transitioned to television; now, in a YouTube world, with a whole generation plugged in and logged on, the internet is the latest Goliath to challenge theatre's humble David. Yet somehow, theatre trudges along -- if not slaying Goliath at least co-opting him.
The Internet has been put to use by teenagers eager to share their performances to the world. It used to be that watching home made videos of past productions was a guilty pleasure amongst a tight-knit group of friends eager to re-live the experience -- giggling at small mistakes and gleefully cringing at the embarrassing performances by other, less dedicated cast members. Possessed to share this experience with the world, students now post clips of their performances for the anybody to watch on YouTube. There is a magnetic pull to these snippets. High school musicals, being put together hastily, with a (usually) small budget and limited artistic oversight is rarely "creative" -- the directorial talent and design team proficiency simply not up to the challenge of re-conceiving shows that, given the constraints, need rethinking. Instead, what's produced is often a fascinating after-image of the original production; a second rate simulacrum of something that was much bigger and slicker on the great white way. This habit extends beyond the technical aspects down to the performances themselves. Watching these moments on the web, comparing the same scene as performed by different high schools, is mesmerizing. Given the narrow catalogue of material that schools choose from, the same moments invariably are performed by many different schools; the play itself becomes something of a ritual: disparate and unrelated people performing the same scenes in the same costumes with the same scenery (though “rich” schools stand out in this regard), united by the ephemeral but titanic reality of performance. It's no coincidence that theatre and religion have only recently parted ways; just as the mass united Catholics throughout history across countries and oceans, so "The Mambo at the Gym" and "Shipoopi" unites young worshippers of theatre today. Broadway is our Vatican. Not to make these clips sound downright liturgical, I remind the reader that their pleasures are anything but holy and sepulchral, though, like religion, they can be guilt inducing. Making snap judgments about the sexual orientation of male cast members is an utterly inappropriate, if all-too-enjoyable, game to play.
The movie musical CAMP is a fictional depiction of the very real children's theatre-based theatre focused summer camp "Stagedoor Manor", situated in the Catskills of New York. The awkward plot and hackneyed attempts at coming of-age melodrama are of little note, but the film's musical numbers are knock-out. Here is the purely distilled joy of the sheer love of theatre as can only be captured by the not-yet-jaded enthusiasm of youth. Whether it is the all-out lunacy of a suburban white girl wailing as Effie in Dreamgirls or the bouncy, giddy fun of a whole cast performing a shockingly credible rendition of the "Turkey Lurky" dance from Promises/Promises, the movie plays like a tinker-toys That's Entertainment. Not since the Andy Hardy series, where Mickey and Judy would “put on show-gosh darn it!”, has the cinema captured this unique energy with such aplomb. While no visit to your local high school is going to turn up the level of future talent and professionalism you see in CAMP (many of the film's performers have since embarked on successful careers), even catching one diamond in the rough can be a treasure to watch. After all, the talented stage performers of tomorrow have to start somewhere; unlike film actors, thespians perform live, and they usually start early.
So, did I find any future Tony winners in this Les Miserables? Sadly I must confess, no. But it turns out that "Les Miz" (as theatre-folk abbreviate it), despite it's obvious ambition is a wonderful musical for students to perform: the set is almost non-existent, the music vocally demanding but nonetheless straightforward, the material literary and "inoffensive" (save for the rather discomfiting sight of a gaggle of teenage girls dressed like red-light district harlots, advertising to false mustachioed Johns), and the cast size is massive, swelling to over 35 at the production I attended. (The financial model of student theatre is the inverse of Broadway: the more people you cram onstage, the more family members you have to invite and the more program "ads"—"we love you Jared! Break a Leg! Love, Mom"-you sell, and, in the end, the more tickets get sold.) Best of all, this challenging material makes even the most talent-less of performer take themselves and the play seriously. A re-tread of those inexhaustible high school "favorites" Grease, Bye Bye Birdie or the new nadir of the genre, High School Musical will make students lazy and flippant, the low expectations of their abilities diminishing their enthusiasm. Given the chance to fully invest their energy in a piece of art worthy of their (perhaps hitherto latent) ambition, even the worst high school performer will find artistic satisfaction. Even the most jaded audience member will too. It's not just a page in the yearbook anymore.
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