NBC’s ‘Rise’ Is About High School Musical Theater, Football, and Much More

By Mark Walsh — March 12, 2018 5 min read
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“Rise,” the new high school drama on NBC, has unavoidably been called (by critics and TV writers, at least) a cross between “Glee” and “Friday Night Lights.”

So is the hourlong show, which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern time/9 p.m. Central, more like the glitzy Fox high school music drama or the gritty high school football show?

On the one hand, “Rise” is about a high school theater department with a new director, similar to “Glee,” which opened with a dynamic new teacher who brought new life and creativity to the glee club during its 2009-2015 run.

On the other hand, “Rise” is set in a rundown small town with the football team as an important element, similar to “Friday Night Lights” (which ran from 2006-2011 on NBC or DirectTV’s 101 network) and its setting in a west Texas oil town. “Rise” is in the fictional struggling steel town of Stanton, Pa. But the star quarterback also sings and is convinced to join the fall musical.

It may help to know that one executive producer of “Rise” is Jason Katims, who held the same role in NBC’s TV version of “Friday Night Lights,” which of course was also a successful nonfiction book (by H.G. Bissinger) and movie.

And the first few episodes that I previewed came across much more like “Friday Night Lights” than the slick “Glee.” And then in The New York Times on Sunday, Alexis Soloski reported that if the show is picked up for next season, the drama department at Stanton High School (in the story, of course) will produce a play, and do a musical in the spring 2019 episodes.

So, this is not a show in which the students will always be breaking out in song.

“Rise” arises, so to speak, from Drama High, a 2013 nonfiction book by Michael Sokolove about a Levittown, Pa., drama teacher, Lou Volpe.

Jeffrey Seller, a producer of the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton,” eventually acquired the rights and helped develop the series. (Uh oh, Seller’s role might seem to be a strike for more of a “Glee"-like show.)

The series opens with English teacher Lou Mazzachelli (Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother”) asking the Stanton High principal about replacing the recently departed drama department director. Mazzachelli, called Mr. Mazzu by the students, seems a bit world-weary and not particularly qualified to wrest the department from interim director Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez).

Wolfe is also interested, but the principal says he has had too many run-ins with her and that Mr. Mazzu can have the job.

This, naturally, does not go over well with Wolfe, and she clashes repeatedly with Mr. Mazzu in these first episodes. The students, meanwhile, are rehearsing for that high school musical staple, “Grease.” But Mr. Mazzu has other ideas for his first production.

“There have been three productions of ‘Grease’ [at Stanton High] in the last decade,” Mazzuchelli tells Wolfe. “Do we really need another one?”

Mazzuchelli proposes “Spring Awakening,” the avant-garde 2006 Broadway musical based on an 1891 German play about teenagers discovering their sexuality.

The principal is not pleased because “Spring Awakening” includes themes of suicide, teen sex and pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, and obscenities. He orders a production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” because the school already has the uniforms.

But by this time, the drama students have been introduced to the TV audience, and they have been rehearsing the edgier musical. A well-timed protest, including a bonfire of the pirate costumes, results in the principal relenting on “Spring Awakening.”

The many strands of the show are unveiled at a fast pace. Mr. Mazzu hears the quarterback, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), rapping at the pep rally, and immediately thinks he will be perfect for the lead male singing role in “Spring Awakening.”

Robbie is interested, but this hardly goes over well with football coach Sam Strickland (Joe Tippett), whose own daughter is in the show and who is having an affair with the mother of another Stanton High student (who is also in “Spring Awakening”).

A student named Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland) has long been a lead Stanton High productions, but Mr. Mazzu has bumped him down to secondary character in “Spring Awakening,” and a gay one at that. Simon comes from a conservative Catholic family, and his parents are horrified by the script, not least because their son’s character has to kiss another boy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mazzu has trouble at home, where his son, Gordy (Casey W. Johnson), is abusing alcohol and his wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), is less than thrilled that her husband has invited a student who is the lighting whiz of the drama department to stay with them for a few days. That student, Maashous Evers (Rarmian Newtown), is in a troubled foster home and has been sleeping in the school theater.

In Sokolove’s book, Volpe, the real-life inspirational drama teacher, is a married (to a woman) father who was a closeted gay man for many years. Producers decided to make Mr. Mazzu straight, with Katims telling the New York Times that making the teacher a closet case didn’t seem to fit with a 2018 setting. (Volpe himself told the Times he was OK with that.)

Mr. Mazzu has a lot on his plate as the story develops, and he is not always sympathetic. But that seems realistic and a bit refreshing, given that many on-screen teachers are portrayed as either superheroes or bozos. “Not everything’s about you, Lou,” one character tells him.

Just as “Glee” boosted high school music groups, a successful run of “Rise” could renew interest in high school drama. But there is a more immediate and tangible way that NBC is doing that.

Along with the Cincinnati-base Educational Theatre Foundation, the TV network has established the R.I.S.E. America grant program, which last week announced $10,000 grants to 50 high school theater programs across the country. (The acronym stands for Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression.)

Among the winners was Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa., the basis for the Drama High book. Another winner was Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., where I happened to attend. Like the fictional Stanton High, football is king, but the drama department has always been high achieving, too.

And just for the record: In my senior year, the spring musical was “Grease.”

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