Three entirely different musicals are canceled in the fascinating, flawed first hour of NBC's drama club drama

By Marc Snetiker
March 13, 2018 at 11:00 PM EDT
Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty
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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 GreaseGREASE.

(Page 2: Lou’s magic changes)

So mere moments after taking over the drama club, Mr. Mazzu effectively decides to proceed with Spring Awakening, seemingly not clinching any of the necessary rights nor approval from the powers that be. Then again, Stanton’s principal didn’t even seem to realize Ms. Wolfe was doing Grease, so clearly anything goes here (except Anything Goes, which we can’t afford!). Seeing Mr. Mazzu’s show choice, Ms. Wolfe quickly renegs on her exit and decides to stay on as assistant director, perhaps out of a love for theater, or perhaps out of a keen desire to get a front-row seat before the s—-show parade passes by.

Let’s take a quick second and ask ourselves: Why is Mr. Mazzu so desperate to stage Spring Awakening in the first place? His shake-things-up attitude seems to stem predominantly from a crippling case of domestic ennui. His unengaged students and tepid English classes aren’t exactly micing his men, and the thrill of raising three teen and teen-adjacent children seems to be plateauing as well. Doing Spring Awakening, themes notwithstanding, essentially marks Mr. Mazzu’s musical midlife crisis, but it’s his particular distaste for having spent 17 years as an inconsequential bystander to many, many students that explains this man’s reckless need to produce a show that not only rocks the boat but drowns everyone onboard. (Sit down.) In his head, surprising a conservative-leaning Pennsylvania town with a show about abortion, suicide, teen pregnancy, and repressed sexuality both homo and hetero is exactly the kind of impact that will put this under-sung English teacher on the map. OK, let’s roll with it!

The kids don’t seem to mind, anyway. Yes, they were already in mid-hand jive, but they’re down for Spring Awakening, as any theater kid would be down to find out they could be in a musical written after 1995. Only Gwen (Amy Forsyth), the club’s regular leading lady, questions the sudden show swap, but she nevertheless goes on to deliver a stunning audition rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” that would have landed her the lead role of Wendla (arguably the Sandy Dumbrowski of 19th-century Germany) in any other situation. Unfortunately, Mr. Mazzu doesn’t just want to shake up the production choice but the very kids who are in it. Remember, it’s HIS dream, and we’re all just tigers coming at night. And so Mr. Mazzu decides to sideline the three biggest stars of the Stanton High program and focus instead on casting Lilette Suarez and Robbie Thorne as Wendla and Melchior.

Lilette (played by Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana, and also the body of Moana I guess) is a part-time waitress with big-time dreams. She’s currently receiving her share of side-eye because she’s the daughter of de facto town strumpet Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk), who has only achieved said honorific because of her affair with the football coach (Joe Tippett). The backlash to the gossip has already taken its toll on Lilette at school, but the fact that the adults’ affair is not yet over continues to drive a wedge between Lilette and her mother as well as Lilette and Gwen, the coach’s daughter. Lilette is new to the club in many ways. She did not audition for Grease, apparently, but upon the insistence of her friend Simon (Ted Sutherland), she is now a theater person, Maureen.

Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), on the other hand, is the Muppet Babies version of Finn from Glee, a popular football player who’s not afraid to rap-slash-sing in front of his friends at the school pep rally, but doesn’t fancy himself any sort of theatrical performer until Mr. Mazzu helps to Unlock It Within Him. Robbie’s in the throes of football season and doing that cliché thing where he needs a better grade from Mr. Mazzu’s English class to stay on the team, so Mr. Mazzu forces him to audition. After exceeding both Mr. Mazzu’s expectations and his own, Robbie actually realizes he enjoys theater, not to mention the joy it brings his dying mother and the energy he’s vibing with Lilette (thus making for exactly the kind of teenage sexual tension Mr. Mazzu is weirdly seeking).

There is something to be said for the way Mr. Mazzu casts the rest of the show, and, stepping back for a moment, it gives Rise enough intrigue to justify what will be a long, thematically-heavy road to opening. Gwen is relegated to the part of Ilse, whose personal shame in Spring Awakening seems primed to mirror Gwen’s own fall from grace as her family’s splintering no doubt becomes more and more public. Three-time leading and only man Simon is given the “fifth lead” role of Hanschen, a gay character whom Simon, a devout and currently straight Catholic, worries his parents won’t accept; without throwing too much unwarranted speculation about Simon’s sexuality, we’ll just have to see where the junk falls with that story line. Finally, on the advice of homeless lighting child Maashous (Rarmian Newton), Mr. Mazzu casts Michael Hallowell (Ellie Desautels), a trans boy with the voice of an angel, as the tragic Moritz — which makes me worry ever so slightly about how Michael’s story might mirror the scary turns of Moritz’s, given Rise‘s apparent attempt to cast teens whose personal drama is destined to reflect their Spring Awakening character.

One fundamental flaw I must point out here, because there’s no other time to really say it, is that Mr. Mazzu keeps referring to Spring Awakening as having two lead roles. (So much so, he segregates the parts on the cast list.) There are, in fact, three leads. Moritz, the best friend of Melchior, is certainly as significant as either principal part and arguably the most cataclysmically important character in the whole musical. I recognize that pointing this out sort of kills Mr. Mazzu’s central obsession with Lilette and Robbie and does even more damage to Rise’s focused presentation on the outsider and the football star — but I guess we’ll just have to swing with that, too. I mean, it’s not like we don’t already have to accept the most ludicrous truth that there is no circumstance under which Mr. Mazzu should have the logistical backing (or even the rights?) to do Spring Awakening. I’m all for bold theater, but it is simply insane to produce a musical, much less post a half-finished cast list for one, that has seen exactly one boy audition for no fewer than six male roles. (And yet four girls are splitting the Adult Women role, which is about the most accurate thing this show has done so far.) My school tried to do West Side Story for approximately five days before realizing that our already-limited supply of boys was crippled by an even more limiting supply of dancers. Mr. Mazzu can’t just choose a show and force the assets for it to manifest—did we learn NOTHING from Rebecca!?—and yet, here we are.

Eventually, the cast list fills out, and rehearsals begin in earnest montages. Lilette and Robbie and Simon and also Barb from Stranger Things start to feel their characters. Mr. Mazzu begins to fall into the rabbit hole of putting theater above his family, which everyone could have predicted. The football coach has threatened Mr. Mazzu over his poaching of Robbie, which is slightly more violent of a threat than I expected. And the Mazzuchellis have also taken in foster kid Maashous after Mr. Mazzu finds him living in the lighting booth. Once more, that is Maashous, about whom a colleague of mine asked, “Is the tech guy a ghost?”

And then! THEN! After all of this, Rise erases the past 45 minutes in 4.5 seconds. After at least one, maybe two weeks’ worth of rehearsals, Principal Ward suddenly finds out about Mr. Mazzu’s choice of show and abruptly cancels Spring Awakening indefinitely. He goes one step further and says Grease rights are too expensive (something that cannot possibly be true in the history of musical rights) and then, this man, who up until now has displayed no interest whatsoever in what the theater department does, promptly relieves Mr. Mazzu of his drama chiefdom and selects Pirates of Penzance by fiat because they already have the costumes. Pirates! Of! Penzance!

We cut to Ms. Wolfe already at work directing this new production of Pirates, naturally with full cast, costumes, and sets already on display. But it’s just not The Same as Spring Awakening, so we cut next to: the bonfire. That damn bonfire. If it isn’t already evident that the Stanton High arts program is bankrupt because it keeps blowing all its money on premature stage design whenever the musical changes, the poor financial management crystallizes for good when the children and Ms. Wolfe decide to BURN ALL THE PROPS AND COSTUMES because they just can’t bear doing Pirates of Penzance. The principal, the football coach, and Mr. and Mrs. Mazzu all conveniently show up to witness the fire, and there’s a little light extortion from the cast: Robbie won’t play football at all if he can’t do the show, and the show must be Spring Awakening, and Mr. Mazzu must direct it. And so, despite the false start of three different musicals in the span of maybe two weeks, tops, Rise undoes the undo it just undid and Mr. Mazzu, having crushed so many other dreams to ensure the manifestation of his, finally gets his dream production. For now.

As the pilot ends and the 10-episode season begins, there is just one more question to address, and it is this: If Hamilton exists in Rise, then so must Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote Moana and also performed it at the 2017 Oscars with Auli’i Cravalho, who here plays Lilette, and so one must wonder, difficult as it may be to imagine… does “How Far I’ll Go” exist in this world?!?!? Good night.

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