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High School Musical(s): 10 Shows For and About Teens

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


From ‘Mean Girls’ to ‘Be More Chill’ to ‘The Prom,’ Broadway’s going back to high school

This season, Broadway seems seems to be headed back to high school. From Dear Evan Hansens reflection on social isolation to Mean Girls’ pinkened popularity contest; from The Prom’s LGBTQ coming-of-age to Broadway-bound Be More Chill’s portrait of coolness as computable, the Broadway high school-set musical seems poised for a second coming-of-age. But the high school musical is actually a much more significant fixture of Broadway than many might realize. ShowTickets Contributor and Broadway expert Mark Robinson walks us through the evolution of the high school musical (not to be confused, of course, with High School Musical).

The cast of ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Heathers
It’s murder to be popular – or at least that is what the musical Heathers metaphorically suggests. One of the biggest challenges of high school is navigating the social strata that determines whether you are the “in crowd” or the “out crowd.” Heathers demonstrates (to the extreme) what people will go through to be at the top of the food chain. A 2014 Off-Broadway musical by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy and based on the cult 1989 film of the same, Heathers asks the question, “How far are you willing to go to rule the school?”   

Dear Evan Hansen
“On the outside, always looking in” is a lyric from the Pasek and Paul score for Dear Evan Hansen that sums-up what many high schoolers feel. It’s not about being popular, it is just about wanting to connect to someone else, a friend who can take your hand and walk with you through the daunting journey of adolescence. Dear Evan Hansen captures the aloneness that each of has felt at some point in our lives, particularly in that societal microcosm of high school.

Grease
Who we are when we are one-on-one with someone we just met, and who we are when we are around our friends, are two entirely different things. In the now-classic 1971 musical Grease, Sandy and Danny meet during summer vacation and fall into a case of puppy love. When it is time to return to school, Danny learns that Sandy has transferred to his school, Rydell High. Now he has to juggle being the sensitive boy Sandy spent time with over the summer, and being cool around his friends, who see him as their leader. Set in 1959, Grease shows us that, no matter what the decade, peer pressure has always shaped and undermined the high school experience. 

Spring Awakening
Sex: It may not be on the mind of every teenager, but it is certainly is a curiosity for many. The 1906 play Spring Awakening by German playwright Frank Wedekind addressed this head-on, and so did its 2006 musical version. With a score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, songs such as “Mama Who Bore Me,” “The Bitch of Living,” “The Word of Your Body” and “Totally F****d” dove right into the maelstrom of questions and frustrations teenagers experience around sex, incited by curiosity and raging hormones.

Bye Bye Birdie
The generation gap has been a recurring theme in musicals about high schoolers, and Bye Bye Birdie (1960) probably best-exemplifies that rift between parent and teenager. Excited to have an Elvis-like rock star visiting, the teenagers of Sweet Apple, Ohio begin acting-out and following the hip-thrusting heartthrob around town (much to the chagrin of their parents). The kids believe their moms and dads are squares, just as the adults cannot understand the fascination their offspring have with this new “rock ‘n’ roll” fad.

Mean Girls
Whether you are a Queen Bee or a Wannabe, how do you treat the people that are your peers and life-long friends? Are you willing to hurt someone just to be a part of the “In” crowd? The musical Mean Girls takes a look at the pieces of ourselves that are on the line in making that trade of humanity for popularity. How do we navigate the pitfalls of upward social mobility and maintain a heart and soul? Tina Fey – who wrote the screenplay for the film Mean Girls, and who collaborated with Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond on the stage musical – offers some hilarious and poignant insights on the matter.

Be More Chill
What if there was an easy route to popularity? What if you could just pop a pill and your ability to rise in the social echelons of high school became a breeze? The Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill (which is Broadway-bound this season) ventures to ask this question. For most teens, it is self-doubt that keeps them from realizing their social potential. What if a quick swallow of “SQUIP” – a Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor – could rewire your brain so that you knew how to become what you always wanted to be?  

Bare: A Pop Opera
Being gay in high school is no picnic. Any LGBTQ teen is bound to experience bullying, exacerbated by their own fears about being their authentic self. Bare: A Pop Opera (Off-Broadway in 2004) explores the struggles these kids must endure in a Catholic high school setting, adding a layer of religious guilt to their worries. The Damon Intrabartolo/Jon Hartmere score delves into these challenges and explores the individual journeys these kids must take.  

Hairspray
So much emphasis is put on our outward appearance in high school, from the color of our skin to the shape of our bodies. The musical Hairspray faces the music on this topic, with the character of Tracy Turnblad, the zaftig teenager with a heart of gold, demonstrating, once and for all, that we all deserve to be happy. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman capture the spirit of inclusivity in the musical’s anthem “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

High School Musical
Though it has never played Off-Broadway or Broadway, High School Musical became one of Disney’s hottest franchises on their signature channel and would demand a stage version to become an oft-produced musical in high schools everywhere. High School Musical dares the teenager to be different. It has the audacity to suggest that you can be a basketball star or a math whiz AND star in your school’s musical. It gives kids the courage to step outside of the box and explore many facets of the high school experience, side-stepping the status quo that has been established for them by the masses.  

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

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