I’m Becoming a Big Fan of High-School Musicals

These soon-to-be-former "theater geeks" are going to save the business.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals. I mostly find them insipid and derivative. The exceptions—including West Side Story, Cabaret, and everything by Stephen Sondheim—make the rest of the genre look even worse. Contemporary musicals misfire with appalling frequency, and, sad to say, most of the classics, from Rodgersz and Hammerstein/Hart to Lerner and Loewe, feature creaky scripts and overfamiliar songs. (What’s the most annoying song in The Sound of Music? All of them.)

So what was I doing last Monday, wearing my best white suit [best? Of how many?—Ed.] and standing on the stage of the 5th Avenue with Billy Joe Huel of the Dusty 45s, presenting plaques at the 5th Avenue High School Musical Theatre Awards? I was busy becoming a huge fan of high-school musicals.

This isn’t nostalgia; my high school in Sitka, Alaska, didn’t even have a drama department. But folks, you haven’t witnessed musical spectacle until you’ve seen a chorus of more than 60 teenagers tap-dancing—and tap-dancing well—to “Forget About the Boy” in Roosevelt High School’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. This show, with a budget of around $35,000 (raised by the students, alumni, and ticket sales), was better than many of the professional touring productions I’ve seen over the years. And at the awards evening, sponsored by the 5th Avenue and featuring 67 high schools from across the state in competition, I got a glimpse of excerpts from several other schools, all of comparable quality. When did these shows get so good?

Even weirder, I have it on fairly good authority (a couple of nieces, in fact) that high-school drama is no longer what it was when you were in high school, to wit: geeky. “OK, it’s still sort of geeky,” one of them admitted. “But more of the cool kids do it, so it’s really not so bad.” As to why: Who knows? Are American Idol and Dancing With the Stars a cause or the effect?

This popularity hasn’t come without controversy. Some schools feel that they don’t have the support of their school boards and parents to properly fund such elaborate shows. And even at Roosevelt (which has produced a steady stream of musical-theater alumni), the acclaimed drama department head, Ruben Van Kampen, says there’s closer scrutiny of material than there was when he began teaching in the ’70s. “I got a call not too long ago from a school, and the teacher asked how we got Anything Goes past our school board. ‘You mean Cole Porter’s Anything Goes?’ I asked? ‘The one from 1934?'” (Apparently Reno Sweeney, the show’s evangelist-turned-nightclub singer, raised concerns.) Van Kampen received complaints from audience members about an unlit cigarette, fake firearms, and a comical drunk in Guys and Dolls, which suggests that anything resembling real life on a theatrical stage is an affront to someone or other.

While I stood there reading out the nominees for Best Orchestration, facing the feverish anticipation of more than 2,000 students and their families, I realized that this might be the most important thing to happen to American theater in 30 years. At a time when theaters across the nation are seeing their traditional audiences age or drift to other entertainment, we’re seeing a crop of young people come up who are going to be the most rabid of theater audiences: former theater geeks. It’s enough to make you burst into song.

John Longenbaugh

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