Awww, remember high school theater? The joy of afterschool rehearsals and fast food runs? The Saturday techs and the wild cast parties? The traditional bonfire burning of last year’s sets and costumes in active protest against your principal’s censorship of the Lea Michele musical? O, memories!
NBC’s new series Rise is both fabulous and absolutely insane in its portrayal of a high school theater department. To properly parse it, we have to get one thing out of the way: Theater kids have never really been done proper justice on TV or in movies. The actual timeline and logistics of a high school drama club are far from dutifully, specifically represented onscreen, as far as I can tell (and believe me, if a TV show has even remotely presented a subplot about musical theater, I, like the Phantom, was there). And hey, it’s fair. I don’t entirely begrudge filmmakers for not finding it narratively lucrative to tell the real-time story of the meticulously-scheduled, relatively glamourless, semester-long process of auditions, cast lists, table reads, dance practices, music rehearsals, scene blocking, costume fittings, tech week, ticket selling, cast parties, and the rest. It’s a long road to opening night, as anyone who’s been involved with high school theater can tell you, but Hollywood loves to show these productions as aggressively accelerated, easy breezy side projects (typical day one: learn every song and dance and start blocking the show’s emotional climax). Stories like Rise also tend to treat unfathomable circumstances as common practice — an unrehearsed ensemble member goes on for the lead two minutes before curtain! Or a drama teacher blindly casts someone after one really deep conversation about their dreams! Or Rise’s actual, aforementioned burning of sets to brazenly, blazingly make the point, “Gilbert and Sullivan, out, Duncan Sheik, in!”
That said: Rise is a big silly blast. It’s a clarion call for arts funding and tolerance of teens on the social fringes (many of them falling into the LGBTQ category). It wants to yank on a few heart strings, make a few Statements, and attempt to change your perception of Josh Radnor from sitcom bumbler to Sister Act-in-plaid. The show is simultaneously interested and uninterested in the actual process of a theater production, but it’s almost forgivable in that regard because it’s so over-flawed. And so I’ll be watching this musical melodrama every week, because I love Smash and really love Moana and any theater show is better than no theater show and, following Rise‘s pilot wherein THREE different musicals are canceled, there is a very high chance that this school’s production of Spring Awakening will be scrapped and unscrapped at least like six more times before the first season is over.
How I Met Your Mother debutante Radnor is our adult protagonist, an English teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli who has grown tired of teaching American novels and instead wants to stage memorable American musicals. Mr. Mazzu is married to a wife (whose character traits so far can best be described as “Wife”) and somehow has three teenage children (the age logistics of which are puzzling!). His son, Gordy, is a grumpy football player with a substance abuse problem; daughters Kaitlin and Sadie are Every Millennial Theater Fan, currently bopping to Hamilton but exhibiting the same behavior as any self-identified modern theater kid who hotly debated Wicked v. Avenue Q in 2004 or stage-doored every matinee of Rent in 1997 or broke their VHS player overusing the 1989 PBS tape of Into the Woods or knows what Moose Murders is. Perhaps Mr. Mazzu was once one of these children. Now, he is simply an adult who dreamed a dream, and he will stomp on many other dreams to achieve his.
Stanton High’s theater club is not just the artistic outlet of the school, but seemingly the only artistic outlet in the town of Stanton itself, and Mr. Mazzu sees in it the great potential to achieve the kind of creative spark that he can’t grasp in his lackluster English classes. So despite the extra burden it will place on him and his family, he convinces the principal to let him take over the theater department. Now, the inclination here is to say, “The only problem is, someone’s already in charge of it!” But that’s not really a problem at all for Mr. Mazzu. Our empathy for this main character and wannabe-inspirational hero figure hinges on this exact moment, right at the top of the pilot, when we must choose to look the other way and accept that Mr. Mazzu literally stops rehearsals for Grease to tell current theater head Ms. Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) — an 11-year veteran of the department — that he’s taking over. Or taken over, more accurately.
Grease already has a set. It has a giant wooden jukebox and a giant wooden milkshake and lots of pink painted wooden platforms waiting for a non-speaking ensemble member to pony on them. There is a cast, half-costumed and even doing a little light choreography. A show is indisputably already in progress, with time and money and energy already being put forth into it by the small but scrappy people who support this underappreciated high school club. None of this matters in the least to Mr. Mazzu. He does not request a private meeting with Ms. Wolfe to break the news that he’s ending her decade-long run with the program, nor does he deign to wait to stage his dream theatrical coup until the school’s next production, or even next calendar year. Things are changing this afternoon, because that’s when he talked to the principal. Wolfe is out. Mazzu is in. And Stanton High’s theater program will waste no time building sets and/or starting rehearsals for this next production, because it is an incredibly fast and reactionary group that has a slight premature stage design issue. (More on this later.)
A rightfully furious Ms. Wolfe demands to know why Mr. Mazzu, a one-time director of Fiddler on the Roof in the ‘90s, has abruptly snatched her gig. “I have ideas! Change things up!” he says, and that’s apparently the end of the argument. Ms. Wolfe packs her office (far too quickly, given that she hasn’t even corroborated this move with the principal yet) and leaves Stanton’s theater program in Mr. Mazzu’s unqualified baritenor hands. Tragic on its own, yes, but even more so now that we’ll never know how a teacher planned to put her own spin on Grease. GREASE.
(Page 2: Lou’s magic changes)