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Rise - Season 1
Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
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When you think of high-school musicals, a lot of the same titles probably come to mind. Grease? Obviously. Little Shop of Horrors? Of course. The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, Into the Woods, or Cinderella? All made the top 10 in an annual survey of the top musicals performed by high schools. Spring Awakening, a musical about teenagers in 19th-century Germany grappling with sexuality, societal pressures, and other fraught elements of coming-of-age — as well as topics like abortion and suicide — probably wouldn’t come up high on that list. But on NBC’s Rise, it’s what high school teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) passionately pushes for the students to perform, so much so that he takes over the drama department and halts an already-rehearsing production of Grease to make it happen.

You don’t have to be a former student thespian to raise an eyebrow on if any high school — not just ones in rural suburban towns, like the fictional one where Rise takes place — might hesitate to mount a musical with mature themes, like Spring Awakening. But it’s not just happening on TV screens.

Rise is inspired by the book Drama High, about teacher Lou Volpe, who pushed boundaries with his drama program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Under his direction, students performed some of the first school productions of Rent, Les Miserables, and, yes, Spring Awakening — working with Music Theater International (MTI), which licenses shows for professional, community, and school performances, to pilot versions of shows with “challenging material” to see if they could be adapted for high schools.

Since that first production of Spring Awakening in 2011, two years after the show’s original Broadway run ended, high-school productions have taken place in New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Shorewood, Wisconsin; Highland Park, Illinois; Eugene, Oregon; and Stoneham, Massachusetts, among others. Another high school in Hoboken, New Jersey, performed the musical this past February.

MTI would not give EW specific numbers for how many schools perform the musical each year, but a representative from the organization said that it’s a relatively popular show that is indeed performed in the high school market. And, while some musicals offer a designated “school edition” with approved changes to some adult language or content (Rent is one example), Spring Awakening is offered in its original incarnation.

“I knew that there was a first blush of people wanting to do it and people were asking [lyricist] Steven Sater if he could create a more high school-friendly version of it,” recalled Duncan Sheik, the musical’s composer. “It’s interesting because really the only thing that’s in there that’s problematic is the swear words, because the other stuff … that stuff is all directorial. It’s not really in the script, per se. You could stage that however you want to stage it.”

“It really became an issue of the one song, ‘Totally F—ed,’ and then the rest of it was all about staging and how to pull it off,” he added. “But my whole thought about it, even at the time when we first had the show on Broadway in 2006-2007 and everyone was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a show about kids and yet you’re dealing with all these heavy duty themes’ — people were a little bit scandalized in some way and my feeling was always like, look, I see stuff on MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon that is way more prurient and off-the-charts naughty than Spring Awakening. Spring Awakening deals with heavy issues, but it’s done in a way where I think it’s very respectful to the characters and it’s real and it’s authentic and it’s not for prurient reasons.”

In the case of “Totally F—ed,” Sheik says Slater has “given the tacit okay” to sing it as “Totally Effed” or choose to bleep out the word. “People are able to fairly broadly reinterpret those things if they feel they need to without changing the spirit of the play, as far as I know,” he says.

The spirit of the play is part of what makes Spring Awakening well-cast for its role on Rise. As the show-within-the-show, the teens playing these roles are dealing with the difficult situations depicted in their Spring Awakening characters as well as the hurdles of their own personal lives.

“In taking over the drama program, Lou Mazzuchelli wanted to do something provocative — something that would wake up the students and the town, and himself,” Rise creator and executive producer Jason Katims told EW in a statement. “Spring Awakening focuses on teenagers who are struggling with so much, and I thought those songs would resonate deeply with the characters in Rise who were dealing with big stuff — sexual identity, difficult family situations, an unwanted pregnancy, and class differences. There are strong thematic ties between what the characters in Spring Awakening are going through and what is going on in the lives of the characters on Rise, which translates to emotionally charged musical moments throughout the first season.”

Danielle Miller, who runs the theater program at Hoboken High School, told EW that seeing the students on Rise rehearse Spring Awakening after she staged the musical with her students in February felt “surreal.”

When choosing which shows to perform, she thinks about the students she has and what musicals could emotionally inspire them or change their perspective on life, challenging them to think about things in a different way — and Spring Awakening is one she “always” wanted to do but had been waiting for the right group of young actors to fill the roles. When asking the administration for approval, she provided research on other schools that had performed the musical and highlighted the themes in the story and why they’re still just as relevant as ever. (It also helped that the school had done a production of Rent a few years earlier.)

“I was very clear when I asked to do the show that if I was gonna do the show, I didn’t want to censor anything, because I felt like that was taking away some of the message of exactly what we were trying to say, that these topics need to be discussed and it’s the parents that are scared to talk about them, not the students,” said Miller. “I think that that’s been going on since the beginning of time and that is why sometimes teenagers feel like they can’t navigate through life, because they have nobody to reach out and talk to, because the adults are afraid.”

Miller began her rehearsals with students sitting in a circle in which they’d discuss an anonymously-submitted topic to discuss related to the musical, and Q&As took place at the end of each performance when audiences could pose questions to the cast (there were also warnings about the show’s mature content on its posters and programs). The reception from the community, she says, was “overwhelmingly powerful.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure [what the reaction would be]. I think it was a risk — sometimes with art, the biggest risks produce the greatest rewards, because I think we all felt extremely emotionally inspired from working on this piece,” she said. “I didn’t know if some people in the audience would love it and some would hate it or be appalled by it or not understand it, or think, ‘Oh, this is too shocking and why are we doing this with teenagers?’ On Broadway, it really wasn’t done with teenagers. It was done with older [actors] that were in their 20s, so I think it’s almost more powerful to watch it be done with teenagers because it’s about being a teenager. To have a 15-year-old girl playing [the character] Wendla, I think, is way more powerful.”

Whether more schools will follow suit and perform Spring Awakening (which also returned to Broadway in 2015 with the Deaf West revival) in the wake of Rise remains to be seen, but Miller is happy to see its place there, where it’ll get a much bigger platform as part of a nationally-televised drama — as is Sheik, who sees the musical’s story all the more timely now through the young activists in the aftermath of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February. (In fact, one of those students, Cameron Kasky, is playing the male lead, Melchior, in a local production of the musical.)

“We had this amazing couple of years on Broadway, but you could argue that the show didn’t last nearly as long as other shows that have won seven or eight or nine Tonys. Its initial life was cut short, and I felt that pretty acutely,” he said of its initial run. “I felt like we didn’t really get a chance to live as long as we needed to. So, in a way, it’s recompense that we would have had a Broadway revival so soon and the way Rise is dealing with the material in such a great way — that really means a lot to me,” he said, adding, “And the way it sort of dovetails with what happened in Parkland … I know Steven wrote the show very specifically off the back of the Columbine shooting and it was one of his big inspirations to write the piece, and so again, not to keep bringing this back to gun control, but it is really interesting that here we are nearly 20 years later from that, and it’s still a massive part of the cultural conversation.”

Noted Miller, “I think more schools need to be doing theater such as this … I think it’s a really great choice [for Rise to use] Spring Awakening to help mainstream [it] more since it’s a national television show. The concept of doing theater and art that matters. That changes lives. That students are actually going through daily and you can ignore it or you can help them navigate through it.”

Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

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