The Play's The Thing — High School Productions Down The Decades

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 (NPR)
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When my high school decided to do Guys and Dolls my Junior year, I was ecstatic. My folks had seen the show right after I was born and had the original cast album. I already knew all the songs by heart: "I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere ..."

How could Miss McMindes not cast me?

She did not cast me, but I was her top ticket salesman, as I had been the year before for The Music Man. So the first thing I checked in Dramatics magazine's yearly log was where Guys and Dolls ranked among high school musicals in 1965.

The magazine shared with us its annual lists dating back to 1938, and we've pulled together a searchable list of the most popular shows by decade. And for the radio story above, that sent me online searching for high school performances over the years — a rabbit hole down which I advise you to travel. There's amazing talent out there.

Anyway, it turns out that in 1965 Guys and Dolls was pretty far down the list. And the year before, The Music Man cracked the top five.

The Educational Theater Association, let's note, is only polling its member schools in the lists it prints in Dramatics. The organization had 500 members in 1938; it has close to 5,000 today. But that's out of 21,000 high schools in the U.S., so these rankings are hardly definitive.

They are consistent enough, though, to suggest some trends and truisms. And not just about musicals. Early on, there weren't many: Of a total of more than a thousand high school productions in 1939, the editors counted just 30 "operettas."

A smattering of Gilbert & Sullivan, I'm guessing. Who better, after all, to sing "Three Little Maids from School" than three little maids in school?

The editors complained in their early surveys that the plays being produced were "not on a par with the music played by school orchestras." In other words, the bandleader had his students playing Beethoven, while the drama teacher was mounting titles like Parents and Pigtails.

The editors suggested a solution: Do one classic, for every two popular plays — and then they complained for years that no one was following their advice. They did note, though, that "plays dealing with the problems of youth" tended to top the list — Life With Father, Little Women, Junior Miss, plus two that have stood the test of time: Our Town and You Can't Take It With You.

The latter has been one of the 10 most produced high school plays since the rights were made available to schools in 1939. And Our Town, Thornton Wilder's plain-spoken portrait of life in the fictional small American town of Grover's Corners, has only missed the top 10 in five years across all those decades.

Note that both shows have age-appropriate parts for high schoolers, and large casts, so plenty of kids can participate. And Our Town is designed to take place on an empty stage with no scenery. All you really need is a ladder.

By the early 1960s, musicals had more than crept into the mix, they were threatening in some years to take it over. Fully half of the top 20 shows in a few 1970s years were musicals.

Lots of Rodgers & Hammerstein ... almost always Guys and Dolls and The Music Man. And remember I mentioned age-appropriate parts? Well, Bye Bye Birdie, with its Elvis jokes and teen characters, leapt into the high school top 10 as soon as it closed on Broadway in 1961, and still hasn't left.

In more recent decades, Birdie's squeaky-clean teens have been joined by the comparatively raunchy high schoolers in Grease (the school version edits out a pregnancy, and a lot of dicey language). And more recently, the slicked-back '50s ducktail haircuts in Grease have been joined by the '60s beehives in Hairspray.

Interestingly, there's one show featuring teen characters that's never once cracked the top 10: West Side Story. Probably that's because the show also has ethnic tensions, premarital sex and gang warfare, which provide maybe too many teachable moments. Also, to do West Side Story, you need a lot of that rarest of high school creatures: boys who can dance ballet. And Leonard Bernstein's music is tough.

It's worth noting that the top 10 shows of any year are by nature going to be conservative choices — shows that work for drama teachers: lots of mid-sized parts, no big starring role that'll have to carry the whole show. There aren't enough adolescent Streisands out there for there to be three dozen Funny Girls nationally in one year.

When a budding Streisand does come along — Heather Headley at Northrup High in Fort Wayne, Ind., for instance — she'll sound like a star-in-the-making. In this case she was. A few years after singing the hell out of "People," while playing Fanny Brice in high school, she was among the luckiest people in the world, originating the role of Nala in The Lion King on Broadway. And a few more years after that she won a Tony Award playing the title role in Elton John's Aida.

What the top 10 or even top 20 shows don't reveal is the breadth of what gets produced by high schools these days. When the magazine's editors do a deep dive into statistics, they'll note things like the fact that in a given year, besides the 10 most popular musicals, there are another 140 titles that get at least a couple of productions each, not to mention more than 1,000 different plays.

It's safe to say that every year, somewhere in a high school gymnasium, a 17-year-old boy is waxing dramatic in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and high school girls are playing prostitutes in Miss Saigon.

Would this please those original editors? The ones who argued for more seriousness in high school shows?

Hard to say, but they'd certainly applaud the fact that in recent decades some Shakespeare has crept into the mix, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and on the musical side, a bit of Stephen Sondheim.

His Into the Woods is offered for schools in a special school edition that concentrates almost entirely on the first act, where characters are all trying to get to happily-ever-after, omitting the darker second act that looks at what happens after happily-ever-after.

In terms of pure popularity, though, Sondheim's brand of fairy-tales-ironic can't "hold a candle" (as Lumiere might say) to Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which closed on Broadway in 2007, and for the next six years, was the No. 1 most-produced musical in high schools across the country.

From Crescenta Valley High in La Crescenta, Calif., to Greenville High in Pennsylvania, and Twin Lakes High in Monticello, Ind., and Dutchtown High in Geismar, La., and on and on ... a nationwide chorus of high schoolers, singing to the rafters about a girl who's into books, who loves a guy who built a library.

Those original Dramatics editors would surely be proud.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "525,600 MINUTES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes...

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Lots of people get their first taste of Broadway close to home, in high school. We mentioned this to critic Bob Mondello, and then we dumped more than 100 pages of data on him - the yearly lists of the most-produced high school shows, dating back to 1938. Well, from Bob's reaction you'd of thought we'd given them a big present.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When my high school decided to do "Guys And Dolls" my senior year, I was ecstatic. I already knew the songs by heart. (Singing) I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere. How could Miss McMindes not cast me? She did not cast me, but I was her top ticket salesman, as I had been the year before for "The Music Man." So the first thing I checked in the Educational Theater Association's yearly log was where "Guys And Dolls" ranked among high school musicals in 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUYS AND DOLLS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) When you see a guy...

MONDELLO: Pretty far down the list, actually. It was the 18th most-produced musical that year. What you're hearing, like all the songs in this piece, are high school performances I found online, a rabbit hole down which I advise you to travel - amazing talent out there. Anyway, the year before, in 1965, "Music Man" had been the third most-produced, with more than 40 productions around the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "76 TROMBONES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As Harold Hill) (Singing) Seventy-six trombones led the big parade.

MONDELLO: The Educational Theatre Association, let's note, is only polling its member schools in the International Thespian Society lists in prints in Dramatics magazine. The organization at 500 members in 1938. It has close to 5,000 today, but that's out of 21,000 high schools in the U.S., so these rankings are hardly definitive. They are consistent enough, though, to suggest some trends and truisms, and not just about musicals. Early on, there weren't many musicals. Of a total of more than a thousand high school productions in 1939, the editors counted just 30 operettas - a smattering of Gilbert and Sullivan, I'm guessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE LITTLE MAIDS FROM SCHOOL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Three little maids...

MONDELLO: Who better, after all, to sing "Three Little Maids From School" than three little maids in school?

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: The editors complained in their early surveys that the plays being produced were not on a par with the music played by school orchestras. In other words, the bandleader had his students playing Beethoven, while the drama teacher was mounting titles like "Parents And Pigtails."

The editor suggested a solution - do one classic for every two popular plays - and then complained for years that no one was following their advice. They did note, though, that plays dealing with the problems of youth tended to top the list - "Life With Father," "Little Women," "Junior Miss" - plus, two that have stood the test of time - "Our Town" and "You Can't Take It With You."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Anthony P. Kirby) I'm not accustomed to going out to dinner and spending the night in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Grandpa Martin Vanderhof) Well, now, you have to remember you came on the wrong night.

(APPLAUSE)

MONDELLO: "You Can't Take It With You" has been one of the 10 most-produced high school plays every year since the rights were made available to schools in 1939. And "Our Town" has only missed the top 10 in five years across all those decades. Note that both shows have age-appropriate parts for high schoolers and large casts, so plenty of kids can participate. And "Our Town" is designed to take place on an empty stage with no scenery. All you really need is a ladder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OUR TOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Myrtle Webb) Breakfast is just as good as any other meal, and I won't have you gobbling like wolves.

MONDELLO: By the early 1960s, musicals had more than crept into the mix. They were threatening, in some years, to take it over. Fully half of the top 20 shows in a few 1970s years were musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKLAHOMA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.

MONDELLO: Lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein - almost always "Guys And Dolls" and "Music Man." And remember I mentioned age-appropriate parts?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT OF LIVING TO DO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (As Conrad Birdie) (Singing) There are chicks just ripe for some kissing.

MONDELLO: "Bye-Bye, Birdie," with its Elvis jokes and teen characters, leapt into the high school top 10 as soon as it closed on Broadway and still hasn't left.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT OF LIVING TO DO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (As Conrad Birdie) (Singing) And those chicks don't know what they're missing. I got a lot of living to do.

MONDELLO: In more recent decades, those squeaky clean teens have been joined by the comparatively raunchy high schoolers in "Grease."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREASE LIGHTNING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (As Danny Zuko) (Singing) Go, Grease Lightning. You're burning up the quarter mile.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Grease Lightning - go, Grease Lightning.

MONDELLO: The school version edits out a pregnancy and a lot of dicey language. And more recently, the slicked back '50s duck tail haircuts in "Grease" have been joined by the '60s beehives in "Hairspray."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING, BALTIMORE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: (As Tracy Turnblad) Good morning, Baltimore.

MONDELLO: Interestingly, never even once in the top 10 most-produced shows was another musical that has characters - "West Side Story." Probably that's because it also has ethnic tensions and premarital sex and gang warfare, which provide maybe too many teachable moments. Also, to do "West Side Story," you need a lot of that rarest of high school creatures - boys who can dance ballet. And this music is tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WEST SIDE STORY" SCORE)

MONDELLO: It's worth noting that the top 10 shows of any year are, by nature, going to be conservative choices - shows that will work for drama teachers - lots of mid-sized parts, no big starring role that'll have to carry the whole show. There aren't enough adolescent Streisands out for there to be three dozen "Funny Girls" nationally in one year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE")

MONDELLO: This is Heather Headley at Northrup High in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1992, and if she sounds like a star in the making, it's because she was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE")

HEATHER HEADLEY: (As Fanny Brice) (Singing) They're the luckiest people in the world.

MONDELLO: Here, she was in high school. Four years later, she was among the luckiest people in the world, originating the role of Nala in "The Lion King" on Broadway. And three years after that, she won a Tony award, playing the title role in Elton John's "Aida."

What the top 10 - or even top 20 - shows don't reveal is the breadth of what gets produced by high schools these days. When the list's editors do a deep dive into statistics, they'll note things like the fact that in a given year, besides the 10 most popular musicals, there are another 140 titles that get at least a couple of productions each, not to mention more than a thousand different plays. It's safe to say that every year, somewhere in a high school gymnasium, a 17-year-old boy is waxing dramatic in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PIANO LESSON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Boy Willie) Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house. Now I'm supposed to build on what they left for me.

MONDELLO: And high school girls are playing prostitutes in "Miss Saigon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #6: (As character) (Singing) See my new hot pants? They're just the right size. Don't you enjoy how they ride up my thighs?

MONDELLO: Would this please those original Thespian Society editors, the ones who argued for more seriousness in high school shows? Hard to say, but they'd certainly the fact that some Shakespeare has crept into the mix and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and on the musical side, a bit of Sondheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTO THE WOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Into the woods, without delay, but careful not to lose the way.

MONDELLO: Although Sondheim's brand of fairy tales ironic can't hold a candle, as Lumiere might say, to "Beauty And The Beast," which closed on Broadway in 2007 and for the next six years was the number one most-produced musical in high schools across the country, at Crescenta Valley High in California...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #7: (As Belle) (Singing) Oh, isn't this amazing.

MONDELLO: ...Greenville High in Pennsylvania...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #8: (As Belle) (Singing) It's my favorite part because...

MONDELLO: ...Twin Lakes High in Indiana...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #9: (As Belle) (Singing) ...You'll see.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #10: (As Belle) (Singing) Here's where she meets Prince Charming.

MONDELLO: A nationwide chorus of high schoolers singing about the girl who's into books, who loves a guy who built a library. Those original Thespian Society editors would be proud. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Now it's no wonder that her name means beauty. Her looks have got no parallel. But behind that fair facade, I'm afraid she's rather odd. Very different from the rest of us. She's nothing like the rest of us. Yes, different from the rest of us is Belle.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Lefou) I got it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.