But to others, a high school musical is “Chicago,” which is still doing business on Broadway. Or “9 to 5: The Musical,” which played at the Wharton Center a little over a year ago and opens next weekend at Holt High School. Or, for director Steve Delp at Grand Ledge High School, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“It’s one of those shows,” Delp said. “When you say ‘theater,’ you think ‘Phantom of the Opera.’”
When you say “high school theater,” however, you usually think of something a little less grandiose than crashing chandeliers, gondolas gliding down underground rivers and the Phantom hurling fireballs from the top of a mausoleum. Effects like those cost money, and Delp — who admits he has “always liked big shows” — was prepared for that. Planning on the show (which opens in May) began a year ago, immediately after Grand Ledge secured the rights to produce it. A budget was put together, and Delp and his crew set out to raise the $80,000 to cover it from corporate sponsors and donations. Students are involved in the construction of some sets, while many of the other elaborate costumes and set pieces (such as that famous chandelier) will be rented.
“We don’t get funding through the school district; we’re completely self-funded,” said Delp, who is well aware that a price tag like that could raise questions.
“As far as production expenses are concerned, we are completely on our own. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but the show has been a phenomenal success at other schools that have done it recently,” like East Grand Rapids High School and Portage Northern High School.
To cover the costs with an auditorium of just under 800 seats, Delp had to set a price of $15 general admission, with premium seats priced at $20.
“Historically, our tickets have been between $8 and $10,” he said. “But given what we’re trying to do as far as quality, $15 seems reasonable.”
‘The students want to do contemporary stuff’
When Mark Shaheen attended Powers High School in Flint, he appeared in shows like “My Fair Lady” and “Mame.” Now, he’s directing “Hairspray,” the musical based on writer-director John Waters’ 1988 movie, at East Lansing High School. Shaheen says that while his program still does Shakespeare and musicals like “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” or “Fiddler on the Roof,” his students are drawn to more recent work.
“I think part of it is because of ‘Glee’ and shows like that that make performing and being in choir cool,” Shaheen said. “So the students want to do contemporary stuff — not think about ‘Oklahoma.’ You want to cater to that, and it seems like we’ve been pushing modern shows, from the 1960s onward.”
Shaheen knows what East Lansing likes: His “Hairspray” cast includes an astonishing 106 people. “Tell me about it!” he says, laughing. “In the moment, it’s kind of crazy because even if people want to whisper — “Did you get that?,” “What did he say?” — with that many people, it comes off as a huge noise.”
About a third of his cast has speaking roles; the rest are dancers or chorus members. “We were trying to make sure as many kids as possible could be involved,” Shaheen said.
But because of its subject matter — the battle between integration advocates and segregation supporters in 1962 Baltimore — “Hairspray” can make getting everyone onstage at the same time a tricky proposition.
“We have black featured dancers and white featured dancers, but in Act I, you can’t use them together,” Shaheen explained, because “The Corny Collins Show,” the “American Bandstand” knockoff that is central to the show’s story, is still all-white, except for its monthly “Negro Day” special. “As a teacher, that feels so discriminatory. But the kids have been very understanding. They’ve learned a lot about the end of the Jim Crow era because (‘Hairspray’) captures that time period, that pivotal year.”
Although much of “Hairspray” is lighthearted and funny, it’s built around some serious issues that today's teens still wrestle with, such as body image — Tracy Turnblad, the teenage heroine, is teased because of her weight — overly protective parents and racism.
Although she’s white and sports a Sandra Dee-style bouffant hairdo, Tracy (Catherine Sherman) finds acceptance among Baltimore’s African-American community, befriending record store owner and DJ Motormouth Maybelle (Nyasha Mazhangara) and Maybelle’s son Seaweed (Elie Kirkland). Tracy’s crusade for civil rights doesn’t sit well with former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle (Alyssa Goeckle) and her bratty daughter, Amber (Ashley Person), who scheme to keep Tracy off “The Corny Collins Show.” Edna (Joseph Ambrose), Tracy’s long-suffering mom, initially disapproves of her daughter’s new role as an activist, but soon sees the light.
In terms of content, “Hairspray” is relatively mild, with a few references to French kissing and interracial romance, but not much else. The only edits Shaheen has made involve a few slightly tweaked lyrics. “There’s some language that I don’t think really does anything, and that was my choice,” he said. “But there were no storylines that had to be changed.”
Nor were there any steamy situations that required toning down.
“Whenever you start putting high school kids on stage with sexual (innuendo), you always have parents sitting out there in the audience, going, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’”
‘The wow factor'
You don’t have to tell Jim Allen that: The Everett High School teacher brought Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rent” to the stage of the visual and performing arts magnet school two years ago as soon as the “school edition” of the script became available.
“It was interesting,” Allen recalled. “They cut out some of the really, really strong stuff, but we still had two guys kissing onstage and two girls kissing onstage. It was funny: The only call we got was from this guy complaining that there were two homosexuals kissing onstage. I had to explain to him that the actors weren’t gay, that they were playing roles. But that was the only problem I heard about.”
Allen is producing Everett’s version of “Chicago,” which opens tonight. While the show — based on the true stories of two 1920s vixens who got away with murder and parlayed their scandalous situations into tabloid fame with the help of a sleazy lawyer — has a spicy reputation, Allen says that it’s not really shocking.
“Actually, we’re the third high school in the state to do it, so it’s not that unusual,” he said. “We did edit some obvious language and the characters aren’t in bed together onstage. But if you look at the stage production — not the movie — there’s not much you need to cut to make it appropriate for all ages.
“‘Rent’ is gutsy — way more gutsy than ‘Chicago’ because of the issues it addresses, like AIDS and homosexuality and homelessness. In ‘Chicago,’ the only material is the costuming that everybody thinks about.”
That would be those striking all-black get-ups that cling to vampy Velma Kelly, ribald Roxie Hart and their cohorts in the chorus line. Allen says director Laura Croff-Wheaton and her cast know the difference between slinky and sleazy when it comes to attire.
“There are girls in leotards and tights, but they have costumes on them,” he said. “Nobody who does the show with high schoolers does it with skimpy costumes.”
Allen credits Lansing’s Tolman Foundation for providing the grants that made “Chicago,” “Rent” and last year’s Everett production of “Dreamgirls” possible. “Without their support of the arts, we would not be doing theater at the performing arts high school,” he said.
When Allen attended Traverse City High School in the late 1960s, the theater program included “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Music Man.” That’s the kind of work he avoids.
“Let’s move on: There’s plenty of theater that’s happened since then,” he said.
“I’m not interested in ‘Oklahoma’ or ‘Hello, Dolly!’ or ‘South Pacific.’ There’s a certain canon of modern shows that have significant appeal, and I want to do those shows. Shows that have 'the wow factor,’ if I can steal that line from one character in (A&E’s reality show) ‘Storage Wars’ — significant shows that are worth doing.”
Everett High School
3900 Stabler St., Lansing
7 p.m. Wednesday, March 14,
Thursday, March 15, Friday, March 16; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17
East Lansing High School
509 Burcham Dr., East Lansing
7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, Saturday, March 17, 23 and 24; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 18 and 25; 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 (all seats $5 for Wednesday performance)
$10 adults; $5 students
'9 to 5: The Musical'
Holt High School
Holt Performing Arts Complex
5885 W. Holt Road, Holt
7 p.m. March 22-24;
2 p.m. March 25
$8 adults; $6 students
'The Phantom of the Opera'
Grand Ledge High School
820 Spring St., Grand Ledge
7:30 p.m. May 3, 6 p.m. May 4 (red carpet gala); 2 and 7:30 p.m.
May 5 and 6
$15; $20 premier seating