The Showcase Magazine - Articles


Scholastic Musicals Keep the Art Form Alive

By Walker Joyce

It’s the time of year when high schools and now even junior highs present Broadway shows in their auditoriums. Here in New Jersey, the spring Musical has become a virtual Varsity sport, as schools compete to win Rising Star Awards, a version of Broadway’s Tonys chartered and administered by Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse.

Since my friend Susan Speidel created the program in 1996, schools have increased their performing arts budgets, brought in artisans with professional pedigrees to help direct, choreograph and design their productions, and the level of competition has increased every year.

The trophies have become almost as coveted and prestigious as the ones given to the football and basketball teams, and they’ve jumpstarted the careers of real Show Biz award-winners like local girls Laura Benanti and Ann Hathaway.

Classics from Broadway’s Golden Age mingle with more contemporary works in the scholastic repertoire. Thus, amid the SHREK and HAIRSPRAY reboots, you’ll also see revivals of FIDDLER and THE MUSIC MAN. They help feed the popularity and preservation of the Book Musical, America’s greatest contribution to World Theatre.

I can relate, as appearing in the chorus as a high school sophomore planted the seeds of my career.

The show was CAROUSEL, in the opinion of many, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece. I heartily agree, as it features their best

score: almost every song is now standard. It continued the evolution of the modern musical beginning with their breakthrough, OKLAHOMA, combining dialogue, tunes and dance to create a complete narrative.

In this case, a heartbreaking love story with fantasy aspects, dramatic elements that went beyond the latter’s comic cowboy fluff. CAROUSEL completed the break from Operetta’s gloss, begun when Hammerstein tackled race in his libretto for SHOWBOAT.

All of us hormone-drenched teens related to the doomed romance of the two leads, and the soaring music thrilled us as much as our hometown audiences.

Funny, but I didn’t even seek a part in the show. I was drafted out of the concert choir. Being a male and a tenor guaranteed me a role.

It wasn’t long before the rehearsals became my favorite part of those winter weeks in 1970. We began in late January and worked through February, including a school vacation, all for doing just two performances in March.

New Providence was still emerging as a suburb in my era, and the high school was just 12 years old. Musicals were only scheduled every other year, so the novelty was fresh. Thus, every ticket was sold for our brief run.

On opening night, our principal welcomed the audience and read a telegram, signed by Richard Rodgers, wishing us success. It may have been a public relations stunt by the publishers, but the crowd and all of us waiting in the wings just swooned.

We remained in this heightened emotional state all weekend, as everyone—from the cast to the orchestra, to the other kids in the shop and home economic classes that built the sets and costumes, to the faculty directors and all the proud families filling the 1200 seats—basked in the glow of Being Part of a Greater Whole.

It was magic, and I never got over it.

No doubt the same groups are savoring a similar lovefest this spring.