By Samantha Highfill
March 12, 2018 at 02:43 PM EDT
Peter Kramer/NBC

“No one’s ever going to make this show.” That’s what Jeffrey Seller was told when he and his producing partner Flody Suarez first pitched Rise, a drama about a theater teacher who is repeatedly told “no one’s ever going to make this show.” But, in a move that seems right out of their new series itself, Seller and Suarez made it anyway.

Inspired by Michael Sokolove’s nonfiction book Drama High, which chronicles the story of revered Pennsylvania drama teacher Lou Volpe, Rise follows Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), a small-town English teacher who, in a bit of a midlife crisis, decides to try his hand at directing a high school production. Volpe’s true story is one of great success: Before making rights to shows like Rent and Spring Awakening available to other schools, Broadway producers would take them to Volpe to see how he would stage them. But when Rise begins, Lou Mazzuchelli is anything but a respected director, particularly after he decides to replace the scheduled school musical, Grease, with the far more controversial Spring Awakening. Not surprisingly, Lou is told the show will never happen. But over the course of the first season, he will try his best to prove the administration wrong … all the while figuring out stage left from stage right. “He’s a preternaturally gifted director, but not because he actually knows how to direct,” Radnor says.

What he does know is how to help his students, which is one of the key things that appealed to showrunner Jason Katims. Known for Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, Katims read Drama High and saw an opportunity to return to the kind of storytelling that drew fans to Dillon, Tex., for five seasons. “I’ve always wanted to find a way to capture some of the stuff I feel like we did well on Friday Night Lights, which was to do a show about a town, and I loved the mentor quality of Coach,” Katims says. “It was figuring out: How do you do a show like that, that’s different enough but still has some of those elements?”

Peter Kramer/NBC

Well, for starters, you add singing. Although the series is not a musical — don’t expect characters to randomly start belting out Journey’s greatest hits — music does play a central role, with the songs of Spring Awakening underscoring major character moments. “The reason Lou chooses Spring Awakening, and the reason I chose it, is it’s a story about teens living in a society that’s bringing them down,” says Katims, who adds that the drama won’t shy away from the meaty issues of our time. That’s exactly why Katims put an emphasis on having a diverse cast: The lead romance on Rise is between Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), who’s black, and Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho), who’s Puerto Rican and Pacific Islander. One of Lou’s students is exploring his sexuality; another is transgender. “I wanted it to feel like we’re reflecting the world that we live in now,” Katims says.”You hear that it’s about a drama program and they’re going to do musicals and you might go to one place in your mind of what that tone is, but I wanted the tone to feel more akin to Friday Night Lights, where you feel like you’re dropped into this world and can explore this town. I wanted it to have that authenticity and deal with real stuff.” Adds Cravalho: “I read the script and I started crying because it felt so necessary — the fact that we’re playing with gender and all different ethnicities. It’s so relevant.”

Together, the teens explore the bitch of living, both on and off stage, as Lou attempts to prove the power of theater to his small town. Needless to say, he’ll hear “no” many more times before opening night. But Lou isn’t one to back down. Standing in the lobby of Stanton High School in episode 7, he displays the Spring Awakening poster before turning to his production partner Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) and, with the mix of hopeful determination and fear that will come to define his season 1 journey, declares: “It’s official. No turning back now.” In other words, the show must go on.

Rise premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.