When Glee premiered nearly 10 years ago, there was nothing else quite like it on television. An hour-long musical dramedy about a bunch of high school misfits emoting their deepest insecurities and frustrations through Top 40 pop songs and Broadway standards? For everyone else, it was pure spectacle, but for theater kids, it was revolutionary.
In Glee, theater kids weren't the butt of every joke. (Though, Rachel Berry's theatrics were often ridiculous.) Instead, they got to be the heroes in a story where winning show choir Nationals was just as important as winning the big game on Friday night. Not to mention, Glee introduced an entire generation to musical theater.
Now NBC's Rise, premiering March 13 after This Is Us, hopes to do the same with a new class of drama kids.
Created by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and loosely based on Michael Sokolove's book Drama High, Rise follows a high school drama department long past its prime in a blue-collar Pennsylvanian town and the English teacher (Lou Mazzuchelli, played by Josh Radnor) who wants to revitalize the program with a controversial choice for the school's fall production: Spring Awakening.
Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's provocative, Tony-winning musical was a cultural phenomenon after it made its Broadway debut in late 2006, starring a pre-Glee Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff. The rock-tinged musical follows a group of fraught German teens in the throes of adolescence and all of the complicated, confusing feelings that come with it. Despite being set in the 19th century, the coming-of-age themes of Spring Awakening as well as the issues it addresses — sexual abuse, abortion, religion, sexuality — made it an obvious choice for Mr. Mazzuchelli's inaugural production as theater director. And an obvious one for Katims, too.
"I love the fact that that show is about teenagers," Katims told MTV News while on Brooklyn set of the series. "It's about teenagers dealing with very hard things, and I thought that would be a way for me to tap into all of the thematic connections between what's going on with our characters in the show and those characters in Spring Awakening."
Katims captures that teenage ennui through the stories of Lilette (Moana's Auli'i Cravalho), a shy teen who has to balance being cast as lead in Spring Awakening with bearing the brunt of the financial responsibility at home; Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), the star quarterback who finds himself torn between football and theater; Gwen (Amy Forsyth), the ambitious drama diva whose life starts to fall apart after her parents' separation; Simon (Ted Sutherland), the devout Catholic wrestling with his sexuality; Maashous (Rarmian Newton), the precocious lighting tech who Lou discovers is also homeless; and others who become more integral as the season goes on, including Stranger Things breakout Shannon Purser and nonbinary actor Ellie Desautels.
For the kids of Stanton drama, theater is their escape from reality. For Simon, it's a release from his parents' conservative values and a terrifying chance to experience his own sexual awakening with a fellow classmate, the Ernst to his Hänschen. And for his best friend Lilette, it's an escape from working nights at the diner with her mom to scrape up enough money for rent and an opportunity to finally stand in the spotlight.
Katims met with Sater and Sheik during the development of the series. He even watched the original Broadway production on DVD with Sater to pick his brain on "what his intentions were" during specific scenes. "It really helped me in building the season," Katims said. Meanwhile, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Kitt (Next To Normal) served as the show's music director.
"I didn't want a high school musical show that was going to feel tonally broad, like they were going to break out into song for no reason," he added. "I wanted to earn those songs, and I wanted the characters to earn them as well. I thought that could make the musical theater part of the show much more powerful."
As such, Rise has more in common with a family drama like Friday Night Lights than it does the razzle-dazzle of Glee. Songs like "Mama Who Bore Me," "Purple Summer," "My Junk," and, yes, even "Totally Fucked" (the cast filmed two versions of the track, one singing the work "fucked" and another with "effed") aren't perfectly polished; it's still noticeably a high school production. And there's plenty of rehearsal drama and tech week horrors. Going forward, Katims intends to explore other areas of theater, like plays and one-act drama competitions.
"I'm really interested in watching episodes where some of these characters start to graduate and move on — and what happens after they graduate?" he said. "Lou's older daughter, Kaitlin, is in eighth grade, so next year she's going to be a freshman and she's going to audition for the show, and what happens if Lou doesn't give her the part that she wanted?"
Katim's commitment to "making the show feel realistic" also led to one of the more unsettlingly too-real story lines of the season, in which Rosie Perez's Tracey Wolfe, the assistant director who had been running the theater department on a shoestring budget for years, gets passed over as the head of the department in favor of Lou and his delusions of artistic grandeur. It's a plot that feels inherently political in the era of Time's Up. For Perez, it was one of the reasons she took the job.
"The more qualified woman gets passed over, even though she has put in her time, because she's not easy, because she's tough and passionate and hard to work with," Perez told MTV News and a few other journalists on set. "Would the principal have allowed this to happen if Tracey was a man? Would he say, 'I can't stand him. You can take his job.' That's ridiculous."
Tracey may have a more pragmatic vision than Lou, but she isn't any less passionate about theater or the young people who so wholeheartedly embrace it. "The kids mean more than her ego," she said. "That's a hard thing to play, but she's not submissive. She goes toe-to-toe with Lou, and that's a challenge for women."
It's that grounded tone that separates Rise from other high school musicals — including the High School Musical — that have come before it. It's not about the songs or the musical numbers or being the best; for the drama kids of Stanton High, it's about the thrill and occasional terror of being on that stage, under those lights, and feeling like you're home.