Rise Is a High-School Musical with a Serious Mission
“I feel like all of the shows I’ve done before have led to this,” says Jason Katims of his new drama series, Rise. He’s sitting in the living-room set of his latest NBC show, surrounded by cozy, rustic furniture hued in earth tones. This is the home of Lou Mazzuchelli, a high-school English teacher played by Josh Radnor, who aspires to transform the theater program at his school.
Inspired by the story of real-life drama teacher Lou Volpe, as portrayed in Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High,Rise depicts a fictional Pennsylvania town called Stanton—where steel was once paramount, families live modestly, and the arts have been eclipsed by day-to-day concerns. The setting might remind some viewers of another Katims project, which is no accident: the story, says the creator, “reminds me in many ways of Friday Night Lights,” his previous acclaimed high-school drama. The young characters on that series were driven to realize their individual and collective potential, just like those on Rise, which premieres on March 13. But instead of football, the focus here is on musical theater—minus much of the razzle-dazzle.
“As much as I loved Fame,” Katims says, “I didn’t want to do a show about a high school of the performing arts.” Rise’s teenagers don’t suddenly burst into song, and even the most talented ones don’t have Broadway aspirations. Instead, the show is smaller—and interested mainly in how dedicated teachers and students create a musical from the ground up, in a place where the arts are not exactly embraced.
The pilot episode opens with a sequence of images that situate the viewer in a distressed working-class town. Lou glances out his car window as he drives past a shuttered steel factory and a discarded cluster of construction hats; “MAGA” is etched on one in permanent marker. This is a place where people are out of work, where budgets are strapped, where music and art programs are the first to be cut. It’s precisely the sort of community, Katims suggests, that can be transformed by arts education.
To portray that process authentically, the Rise team—including executive producer Jeffrey Seller, who also produced Hamilton—brought on Broadway composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) as music director, and Danny Mefford (Dear Evan Hansen) as choreographer. “Doing musical theater is like speaking a different language,” Katims says. “So it was a joy to collaborate with these brilliant voices from the theater world.”
Kitt also masterminded the Rise promo that aired during the Super Bowl, in which four of the show’s young stars sing Macklemore’s “Glorious.” Many of them are newcomers to the world of TV, including Auli’i Cravalho, the seventeen-year-old who made her screen debut just over a year ago as the titular voice in Disney’s Moana. They’re balanced out by a grown-up cast of vets in the adult roles—including Radnor and Rosie Perez as Lou’s colleague and sparring partner, Tracey Wolfe.
Managing a cast that is predominantly under drinking age comes easily now to Katims; he’s been dramatizing the adolescent experience since the 90s, when he wrote for My So-Called Life.Rise also offers a multi-layered portrayal of teenagehood in that the musical Lou selects for his students is Spring Awakening, a show focused on the fraught experiences of German adolescents in the late 19th century. Though the musical maintains the period setting of its source material—Frank Wedekind’s seminal 1891 play—it also weaves in modern flourishes, like handheld microphones and an alternative rock score.
“I loved it,” Radnor says of the original Broadway production, a hit that launched Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff to stardom. “I listened to the music quite a bit. I think it was a smart musical for Jason to land on, because it has so many meta parallels for what’s going on with the students onstage and off.”
On Rise, the mature content of Spring Awakening—which includes abortion and suicide—worries the wider Stanton community. But Lou is convinced the show will be a lifeline for his students—even as he watches them stumble through the material. Luckily, he can also lean on Perez’s character. Even though Lou passes over her in order to run the drama program, when she sees him floundering, she puts her ego aside to help him out. Where Lou is the visionary, Tracey is the pragmatist.
“Lou comes in and he’s like, ‘O.K., we’re going shake everything up, and everything is going to be great, and watch: you’re going to figure out that I’m the right person for the job!’ And [Tracey’s] like ‘Whoa, whoa, slow down,’” Perez says.
“It’s not that Lou has a greater artistic sense or artistic taste,” she adds. “[Tracey’s] just coming from a place of reality, and I think that her deficit is her fear. She doesn’t want this program to go away by rocking the boat.”
That possibility is always dangling above Rise, an ever-present danger that gives the series its stakes. The show’s locus isn’t an affluent school; several of its students and teachers deal with serious financial instability. Katims wove a similar thread of economic hardship through Friday Night Lights—but while football was an undisputed treasure in Dillon, Texas, the arts are an afterthought in Stanton, Pennsylvania. “What I really wanted to do,” Katims says, “was examine this drama program within a community that was suffering in a lot of ways.”
“There’s a tendency, I think, in our culture, to belittle the arts—comparing artists negatively to, say, doctors, or workers who make tangible contributions to our world,” he continues. “But I’ve started to realize just how crucial artistic expression is. It helps us to transcend our differences in culture, class, race, and gender.” (In a life-imitates-art maneuver, NBC has also launched a grant program called R.I.S.E. America that will give $10,000 this year to 50 high-school drama programs across the country.)
The payoff from arts education, Katims suggests, is worth the effort. Stanton’s production of Spring Awakening begins to enliven its environs, even as it unsettles the community, suggesting that art—controversial work included—sparks necessary and productive conversation. The show, then, is “political without making a political statement,” Katims says. “It’s saying we have to value these things. We have to value the arts. It’s not just entertaining. It’s at the core of what people need.”
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