'Rise' signs off after a performance that audiences, on TV and off, will remember.
Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
S1 E10
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Ladies and gentlemen, I have some news. Perhaps you found this out earlier in the week, or perhaps you’re only learning of it right now, but you have just watched your final episode of Rise. Barring a last-minute season 2 pick-up by, I don’t know, PBS, the cancellation is a network mandate that has left me both relieved and saddened. Relieved that there will be no more crimes against the rehearsal process of musical theater, but saddened that by the same stroke there will be no more show about musical theater.

Despite my many ups and downs with Rise, it remains true that any theater show is better than no theater show. That’s a sentiment I stressed in my very first recap, yet in light of tonight’s season-turned-series finale, little did I know how aptly this concept would apply to the existence of Stanton Drama. In Rise’s culminating moments, the school’s theater department is shut down, the final knife-twist in what will be remembered as a cautionary tale about one man’s creative ambition and how his refusal to do Grease bankrupt an entire arts program. Mr. Mazzuchelli dared to dream but, like the literal only thing I know about Icarus, he has flown too close to the sun.

That’s the final image we’re left with as Rise signs off — a proud but crestfallen Mr. Mazzu, standing in the spotlight of his grand musical creation mere moments after learning that his experiment got the drama program shut down. The students loved the show, but did they love it enough to say goodbye to any future Pirates of Penzance, now or forever? Sadly we’ll get no more resolution, save for some moderate revelation borne from a post-mortem interview with show creator Jason Katims (who deserves a shout-out for daring to make a series as niche and emotionally/technically ambitious as Rise).

And so, we must ask: With the show now completed and the chorus having reached its final line, what was Rise ultimately about? What will we remember?

Rise was, in one way, a show about a middle-aged white man realizing that perhaps he stepped one privilege too far. There was no unexpected revelation for his assistant director Tracy Wolfe — she knew exactly who Mr. Mazzu was from the moment he cancelled her production of Grease, and although she mustered the strength to put her love of theater above her personal offenses, Ms. Wolfe ends Rise with a loss she doesn’t yet know about, the latest in a string of so many that she fought off time and again as she was steamrolled by our optimistic, stubborn, and self-convinced protagonist. No, I’m not worried about her after this — she is resilient, and like a career Velma Kelly understudy who keeps missing out because of stunt-cast Real Housewives with half a vibrato, Ms. Wolfe will bounce back. At Stanton or elsewhere, she will find another theater family to call home. As will Mr. Mazzu; as so many like him do, he will fail up, probably into some other school, where perhaps he will direct a different hip contemporary musical and not rock a cultural system (and hopefully put an eleven o’clock number like “Totally F—ked” in the right place in the show). Or perhaps he will continue pushing the creative boundaries, knowing fully well that it’s not about the art you make but about how you make the art. (Thanks, Reese Witherspoon.)

Rise was also about the fact that arts programs are still mercilessly being cut left and right across the country (and probably won’t be doing much better under the guidance of Secretary of Education Amelia Bedelia). Katims devised the ultimate ending here, in which all of Mr. Mazzu’s creative feuds over the integrity of the show — the budget fights, the censorship battles, the angsty teenagers and petty design squabbles — were for naught. The school superintendent, of inflated importance and overstated conservatism, actually LIKED the show! And he STILL cut the program! It’s that kind of gross injustice that just fiddles my roof, and if Rise has a second lesson, it’s that there are still forces at work that see the indisputable value in theater programs, but can’t be bothered to act to protect them.

Rise was about art, the kind of art that leaves 999 people totally unmoved and one person completely obliterated. That’s all art, isn’t it? But it’s why musical theater is art at its most social, because theater comes part and parcel with an entire community filled with people who, compared to 999 others, are that one person. And suddenly, they’re a 15-person cast. They’re a 50-person crew. They’re a group of people who silently agree to put their entire lives on hold together — football, waitressing, general free time — to build this one thing, so perfectly rehearsed and painstakingly crafted, all in service of capturing this one feeling that rose out of this one presentation of art that ends after a lengthy run, a fleeting weekend, or in the case of Spring Awakening, just one night. (Here’s where Mr. Mazzu was both right and wrong in his love of the stage — musical theater is not just about the moment when you’re doing it, but about the lifelong afterglow of having done it. No theater person has ever been in a show that did not leave some lingering step of choreography in memory, some still-hummable line of harmony irrevocably buried in the mind, some luminous snapshot memory of an off-script rehearsal belly laugh, the hardest one you’ve ever had. And for all the amazing things that happened onstage in Rise — Simon Saunders kissed a boy in front of his parents and took an incredible step toward happiness — Rise toys with the equally important notion that the real revelations all happen offstage.)

Rise was about children and parents: a daughter losing faith in her father and a son finding faith in his — Gwen Strickland, steadying herself on new footing after being forced off a stagnant balance, and Gordy Mazzuchelli, discovering what it means to stand up straight for the first time in his life. It was about a kid finding an unexpected way to create a meaningful memory with his dying parent — Robbie Thorne, learning how to allocate an energy he knew he had and unlock one he didn’t. It was about a mother and daughter tested by conflicting passions but ultimately by a shared one for each other — Vanessa Suarez, realizing she gave her daughter no way to handle things, trying her best to heed the warning so many of the unseen adults ignore in Spring Awakening, while Lilette, teased with and not entirely against the idea of moving forward in Philadelphia, emerging from this experience a fully-rounded teenager after having realized which elements of her home life define her and which ones she’ll spend the rest of her live proving don’t).

Rise was about censorship, sure. It was about progressive people dealing with age-old dilemmas, sometimes problematically, always earnestly. It was about building families — between trans boys and pregnant girls, between drama teachers and gay students, between homeless teenagers and the kind strangers who picked him up from the floor of a lighting booth.

Maybe Rise was about too much, and maybe that’s why the series’ conflicting themes and underwritten arcs felt cacophonous at times. But the series finale, with its many emotions to parse and slow-motion shots to absorb, felt like that epiphanic moment in the timeline of any theater show where you start to realize that hey, this thing might be shaping up into something. It’s not half-bad, you know, this little theater show of ours. Maybe it just needs a bit more rehearsal. But it will live on — in the same way that Glee and Smash do, that Mamma Mia! and The Greatest Showman do, that Grease Live and The Sound of Music do, because no matter what show you put on a stage, theater people do not forget theater.

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