With ‘Rise,’ Jason Katims brings Broadway drama to a small-town high school
A young man named Robbie stands in the wings of a darkened theater, nervously awaiting his big moment on stage.
“You are going to be amazing. Enjoy it,” whispers his teacher, Lou, a bearded fortysomething.
“I think you might have changed my life,” says his fresh-faced pupil.
“Right back at’cha,” replies Lou, sending his pupil off with an encouraging nudge to the shoulder.
A few feet away, a Steadicam operator films the heartwarming exchange for a climactic episode of “Rise,” a drama premiering Tuesday on NBC following the season finale of “This Is Us.”
The scene, performed by Damon Gillespie as the student and Josh Radnor as the teacher, is scripted, but the creators of the series, which follows the underfunded theater program at a small-town Pennsylvania high school as it attempts an ambitious staging of “Spring Awakening,” hope that it plays authentically.
Created by Jason Katims, the writer-producer behind “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” “Rise” is filming on a Brooklyn soundstage where a 312-seat theater, complete with fake cinder-block walls, has been built from scratch and is filled with background players pretending to be audience members.
Cameras capture their reactions, the performance onstage and other key moments in the wings. A hallway offstage right is lined with racks of costumes and posters for fictional productions of “Godspell” and “Footloose.” On this particular set, the proverbial “fourth wall” is virtually impossible to locate.
“We really are doing a show within a show,” says Katims, perched behind a monitor. “It’s really exciting, but it was a much bigger undertaking than I probably realized. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle — a lot simpler to write than it is to produce.”
Radnor stars as Lou Mazzuchelli, an English teacher who volunteers on a whim to take over his school’s drama program. Instead of yet another production of “Grease,” he decides to stage “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony-winning 2006 musical about sexually repressed teenagers in 19th century Germany — a move that quickly raises eyebrows in a depressed steel town that values football over the arts or academics.
Mazzuchelli also clashes with Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), a teacher who’s been involved in the drama program for decades and resents his interference, starting with his decision to cast football star Robbie (Gillespie) and his crush, Lilette Suarez (Auli’i Cravalho), as romantic leads Melchior and Wendla.
Lou’s fight to bring “Spring Awakening” to the stage is just one of the dramatic plots that unfurl in “Rise,” an ensemble piece that blends grown-up turmoil and adolescent angst and takes on real-world issues like coming out, teen alcohol abuse and economic uncertainty in Rust Belt America.
It’s familiar ground for Katims, a showrunner who knows how to give viewers all the feels with his engrossing intergenerational family dramas (“Parenthood”) and nuanced portraits of small-town life (“Friday Night Lights”).
“A really important thing to me about ‘Rise’ is it’s not a show about a drama program,” Katims says. “It’s a show about this community, about these characters, about these people’s lives. It’s what I’m invested in, and I’m hoping that that’s what the audience gets invested in as well.”
The show has widely been billed as “Friday Night Lights” meets “Glee,” but while there are plans to release a cast album, stylistically it is much closer to the former show. No one breaks into song spontaneously, and “Rise” is full of the signature Katims flourishes: a moody, contemporary soundtrack and lots of handheld camerawork “to make you feel like you were dropped down into this world,” he says.
The series is based on “Drama High,” a nonfiction book by Michael Sokolove about the drama program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Penn., where Broadway producers often workshop challenging or provocative shows for use by high schools across the country. The program was run for decades by Lou Volpe, the loose inspiration for Radnor’s character.
Katims was instantly sold on the material.
“I was very touched by the story of what Lou did,” he says. “This was in a small American town, a place where they didn’t have a lot of resources, and these were not kids who were going on to be Broadway stars. They were kids that really needed something in their lives. They needed that mentor, whether they knew they needed it or not.”
Katims is a native Brooklynite, raised about 10 miles south of the “Rise” studio in the middle-class Midwood neighborhood, where he attended Edward R. Murrow High School. Asked about his affinity for shows set in high school, he jokes, “My development is stunted at 16 years old.” Neither a jock nor a theater geek, he discovered a passion for playwriting only in college.
“Weirdly, that gives me an advantage because it makes me be able to come in and really learn about the world and see it for what it is and embrace its beauty. I wasn’t a football person, but when I flew to Texas [for ‘Friday Night Lights’] and started researching the world of high school football, I was in love. And I feel the same thing about this.”
Radnor, on the other hand, starred in high school productions of “Oklahoma!” and “Cabaret” (in the latter, he played the MC) and performs as a duo with singer-songwriter Ben Lee. (On the “Rise” set, he can be found strumming his guitar between takes.) He’s excited that “Rise” has the potential to bring “Spring Awakening,” and musical theater more broadly, to the masses.
“Broadway plays can only hold so many people a night, whereas many, many more people will watch NBC on Tuesday,” Radnor says.
After so many years as Ted Mosby, the man-child protagonist in the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” the 43-year-old is excited to play a grown-up. “I don’t have teenage children,” he says, “but I do have some graying temples.”
“Rise” arrives at a moment when popular interest in musicals, particularly among young people, is on the ascent, thanks to the success of “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” and boasts the involvement of many Broadway vets. Executive producer Jeffrey Seller, who took Sokolove’s book to NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, has a long list of theatrical credits, including “Rent” and “Hamilton.”
Perez has deep ties to the New York theater community and co-founded Urban Arts Partnership, a nonprofit for students in underserved public schools. The message of “Rise” struck a chord with the actress, who, like Katims, was raised in Brooklyn.
“I believe that when you introduce the arts to a child’s life, it opens them up in ways that you can never imagine,” she says. “It worked for me.”
One of the challenges of “Rise” is striking the right aesthetic balance: Lou’s production of “Spring Awakening” has to look like something cobbled together by high schoolers on a shoestring budget, while also being something millions of people will want to watch on TV from week to week.
Gillespie, a former high school quarterback who has appeared in Broadway productions of “Newsies” and “Aladdin,” had to play the role of Melchior as jock-turned-theater-star Robbie would do it, not himself. He focused on acting with his voice, rather than his face or body. During dance numbers, he remembered not to point his toes. “We can’t be so technical and so clean with our performances,” he explains.
Cravalho has never performed on Broadway but is known to millions as the voice of the plucky title character in “Moana.” Still a student herself — she’s due to graduate from high school in a few weeks — she sees “Rise” as a timely story about her generation.
“There’s something to be said about the strength of students and young people across America in just the last week or two,” she says, referring to the activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, “and the change that can really be seen through these students. Our show touches on what some might call controversial topics, but they’re just real.”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)
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