HBO’s ‘Song of Parkland’ Spotlights the ‘Theater Kids’ of Stoneman Douglas High

By Mark Walsh — February 05, 2019 3 min read
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With the anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., coming up next week, the media is gearing up to reflect on the violent event.

On Feb. 12, two days before the actual anniversary of the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 students and school personnel dead, HarperCollins will publish Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen. He is the author of the acclaimed book Columbine, a detailed account of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in suburban Denver.

Also on Feb. 12, the DVD of the documentary “Parkland: Inside Building 12,” by Charlie Minn, will be released. The two-hour film features survivors of the shooting and has drawn attention for its use of student cellphone video of the horrific scene inside the school. That film has had limited runs in a few theaters starting last fall.

This Thursday, Feb. 7, HBO will premiere a less-harrowing tale to emerge from the Florida incident. “Song of Parkland” is a half-hour documentary about how the theater students at Stoneman Douglas High coped with the shooting by returning to the stage under the direction of veteran drama teacher Melody Herzfeld.

If that theme sounds familiar, there are reasons for it. Last February, in the days after the shooting, The New Yorker ran a story about how many of the student anti-gun activists who were taking the spotlight were “theater kids,” including Cameron Kasky, one of the most prominent student leaders of the nationwide March for Our Lives last March 24.

Kasky was among a handful of MSD students who were already rehearsing as cast members of a nearby community theater production of “Spring Awakening,” the Tony Award-winning musical that deals in an edgy way with themes of teenagers responding to a world created by neglectful adults. (The musical, by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, is based on an 1891 German play and is set in the 19th Century, and deals with teenage sexuality, abortion, and suicide.)

The Florida staging of “Spring Awakening” led to a short documentary, “Awakening: After Parkland,” by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, focused on the MSD students’ experience with the production, with appearances by Kasky, Sawyer Garrity, and Alex Wind, among others.

“Awakening” came out last year and is now available for screening on YouTube and a site called Topic.

Song of Parkland - Trailer

The new “Song of Parkland” documentary on HBO treads some similar ground as “Awakening.” Director Amy Schatz, who also made “Through a Child’s Eyes,” about young people’s perspectives on the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, had some good access to Melody Herzfeld and her students as they returned to school after the shooting and returned to preparations for their annual children’s play.

“When we came back to school, we all knew what we needed to do,” student Alex Wind says in the documentary.

Fellow theater student Alex Athanasiou says the sentiment of the students was that “We want to bring happiness to the school again. ... We want to shine a light if you will.”

There are a few obligatory shots of news coverage of the Feb. 14 shooting, and Herzfeld shows off the utility room where she kept some 60 students on lockdown as the shooting unfolded.

Student Ally Reichard recalls that Herzfeld was dismissive of the fire alarm that had sent many MSD students into the halls and directly into danger.

“That minute that we were in the classroom and didn’t go outside basically saved all our lives,” Reichard says in the film.

The documentary shows the students rehearsing for a children’s play called “Yo, Vikings!” by Marcus Stephens. It is definitely not “Spring Awakening.”

Herzfeld reflects during the documentary about having taught at least 10 of the “Never Again” student anti-violence leaders. She says that she strived to make her students understand that despite the violence they had endured, that life is still worth living.

“Life is so good,” she recalls telling them. “So don’t ever lose that. Because if they lose that, they lose everything they’re supposed to have when they’re kids.”

The documentary closes with the tribute to Herzfeld at last June’s Tony Awards in New York City, which included a surprise rendition of “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” performed on the Tonys stage by some 15 MSD students who Herzfeld had taught over her then-15 years at the school.

The moment is as moving in the documentary as it was on TV last spring. As we enter a week or so when many of the disturbing and violent moments from the Parkland incident will be replayed, “Song of Parkland” offers a brief but hopeful melody.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.