Watching creative people build something together makes for great television. Whether it’s an ad, a musical, or a television show within a television show, the creative process is full of tension and release, and when the romantic subplots get a little tired, there’s always the finished product to look forward to. NBC’s Rise is loosely based on the true story of a high school drama teacher, Lou Volpe, who pioneered risky productions in a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania. Josh Radnor plays a fictionalized version of Volpe, also named Lou. Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli takes over the drama department at Stanton High School, a high school that cares more about football than the fine art of theater. Lou decides that the drama department isn’t going to perform Grease for the fourth time in a decade. Instead, they will put up a production of the taboo and scandalous Spring Awakening...because Spring Awakening is Art and Grease is fluff.
The pilot follows Lou as he challenges the status quo in the school. He unseats Tracy (Rosie Perez), another teacher and the head of the drama program of eleven years, and demands that the star football player audition for the play at the start of the season. As Lou topples every norm at the high school and recruits his cast, we meet the students who populate the school and each of their tragic backstories.
There’s the star football player, Robbie Thorne (played by Damon J. Gillespie), whose divorced mother lives in a nursing home and is confined to a wheelchair on an oxygen tank. Lillette Suarez (Moana’s Auli’I Cravalho in her live action debut) gets sneers for her “slutty shorts” and because her single mother is having an affair with the married football coach, whose daughter is Lillette’s rival for the lead role.
Are you exhausted yet? Because we haven’t even gotten to the conflicted Catholic student playing a gay character against his parents’ wishes, or the trans student choosing to go by Michael only within the theater, or the homeless student living in the light booth.
One of the reasons Friday Night Lights works as a show is because there’s a natural reverence for football in our society, whether you’re a sports fan or not. We understand and tolerate devoted football fandom and appreciate the role a football team plays in a small town’s identity. There just isn’t that same reverence for high school theater. In fact, it’s often a punchline.
The show doesn’t lean on what could really be its strength: watching students with a passion and talent for musical theater performance put on a show. There’s a montage of Lillette coming into her own in the role of Wendla but it just…happens after a kind word or two from Lou. We’re robbed of the moment of Lillette discovering what drives her as a performer or tapping into her personal struggles for inspiration. Similarly, in his audition, Robbie adjusts from flat and uninspired “acting” to a natural performance charged with sexual tension when Lou tells him “be yourself.” Lou delivers overly sincere monologues about being a “sacred troupe” and the importance of ART, sometimes to himself in empty rooms. There’s no sense of humor, irony, or even just some acknowledgement that a straight white male teacher with no directing or theater experience beyond summer camp feels like a celebration of white mediocrity instead of a victory.
The audience doesn’t get the chance to discover the students’ strengths along with the characters. In the span of a single Tony award-winning Duncan Sheik medley, these kids are suddenly capable musical theater artists and it’s all thanks to...Lou?
Another creative flaw is the choice by the writers for the students to perform Spring Awakening. Now, the real-life Volpe pioneered school safe versions of controversial musicals. In fact, his program was actually the first school to perform a school safe version of Spring Awakening. Unfortunately, in the world of the show this choice doesn’t make for compelling drama. Upon receiving his new gig, Lou rejects Grease as a safe palatable choice in favor of the more artistic and meaningful Spring Awakening. In doing so, he doesn’t come across as noble, only elitist and a bit snotty. Additionally, the series doesn’t do enough to connect the plot of the musical with the events in the students’ lives. For all its flaws, Smash did a pretty good job of connecting the musical numbers to the events in the characters’ lives. The musical numbers in Rise feel unresolved and don’t feel like an emotional outpouring from our characters. And as a high school musical theater nerd, I can tell you that we sing in musicals when our emotions cannot be contained by words alone. The music shouldn’t feel arbitrary.
I would also wager that most people don’t know the plot of Spring Awakening well enough to draw parallels between the students’ lives and the musical anyway. It’s a strange choice and the show doesn’t explain the plot for us to follow along.
The whole endeavor begs the question – why not take some artistic license and create an original musical for the series? Either have the students perform “a hit show fresh from Broadway” in the Rise universe or have the students write a musical themselves about what it’s like to live in Stanton. The students dramatizing events in their lives and calling out what it’s like to live in an economically anxious football-obsessed town creates conflict and stakes and drama. Short of doing that, the students could also have been tasked with updating and modernizing Grease. The original production was raunchier than the film and subsequent revivals. Imagine a TV show where the principal and the parents believe they’re going to get the typical school production of Grease but Lou’s “vision” is to include Rizzo’s number about her pregnancy, or maybe an honest portrayal of race at the time the play is set. It’s not much but there is some conflict there, much more than exists in this show currently.
The way Rise unfolds now, there’s no tension and no release. Events just happen one after the other. Oh! There’s a problem? Just wait for Lou to deliver a grand speech. They always work. Is there any doubt that these students will put up a version of Spring Awakening? I have none! The kids are talented! And who doesn’t want more Rosie Perez on their TV? As of now, the lack of some deeper conflict is going to be a major problem.
- BARB LIVES. LONG LIVE BARB.
- The repetition of the inappropriate subjects in Spring Awakening made me laugh: “Pregnancy! Incest! Suicide!” It was always those three things in that order.
- What exactly is the name of the student living in the school? “Mash-house”? “Mush-house”? “Mouse-house”?
- Lou Volpe was a closeted gay man during his time as a teacher and came out later in life but the writers chose to “straight-wash” him. Apparently showrunner Jason Katims wouldn’t have been able to relate to a gay character as well as a straight one because Katims is straight. Yikes.
- What high school pep rally features hot bars from the football star?