High school musicals (not Disney’s)

When I was in high school, I had no interest in being in the yearly musical production. I had acted in school plays in younger grades, but drama was really not my strength or my interest. I liked to sing, but I had chosen orchestra rather than chorus as my musical focus in high school. And I wasn’t a good enough violinist (in large part because I didn’t practice enough) to be in the pit orchestra for the musical.

I never even attended the musicals – at least not while I was in high school. When I was home on spring break from college and found out they were doing Camelot, I went and enjoyed the show, and was proud of what my high school could do. What I didn’t realize at the time was how common high school musicals were.

My husband, an excellent singer and a pretty good actor as well, performed in high school musicals – but of course I never saw them, not having met him until we had both finished grad school. I knew he had gone to a high school even larger than mine, so it didn’t seem surprising they could put on those sorts of productions.

Then when he had graduated from seminary, and we were traveling to interviews at churches looking for a pastor, in one town they invited us to the high school musical being presented that night. It was a smaller town than I had grown up in, but they did an excellent job, and I was quite impressed. I began to realize that what I had associated primarily with my own high school must be a much more widespread tradition.

Here in Muscatine, not only the high school but both middle schools also put on a musical each spring. My son has had a part each time – more because of his love of music than his interest in drama, and I am again impressed each time with both the talent these young people have and the quality of the production, evidence of a high level of commitment not only from the students but their parents and the schools.

Last night’s production of The Music Man was great. My one complaint, which I have discovered over three years is evidently a problem of the auditorium and/or sound equipment rather than the students involved, is that at times it is hard to hear the singers over the sound of the pit orchestra. My husband’s opinion is that it’s the fault of whoever is controlling the sound, who should be able to turn up the microphones the singers wear as needed.

Fortunately, this year I knew the musical and its story, so I wasn’t left wondering what important words I might have missed, as I was the previous two years (when they did Anything Goes and Crazy for You). I think one can hardly help but enjoy the lively music, the humor, and the happy ending. Having talented kids doing the whole thing just makes it that much better.

I was especially impressed by the young man playing Harold Hill. He is in my son’s grade, and active in the same music groups, so I hear about him from my son from time to time. Usually what I hear about him reflects his sense of humor, but he clearly put a lot of serious work into learning this part. I have a very good memory myself, but I would be daunted by trying to memorize all those lines and songs. Yet he never faltered – as far as I could tell – and played the part very convincingly. (My son did well also, and I’m proud of him too.)

I found myself wondering just when high schools got into doing these annual productions. Most of the musicals they do these days were first written during my parents’ lifetime, if not in mine. So I’m guessing the tradition must have arisen during that same period, but so far I’m not having any success finding any history on the subject.

The main reason for that – at least as far as web searches go – is the amazing success of High School Musical. No matter what search terms I use, even if I leave out “high” and use “musicals” instead of “musical,” I end up with the majority of hits dealing specifically with High School Musical or one of its sequels. The closest I’ve found so far is a blog called High School Musicals – The Origins, but each entry seems to be about a specific musical, rather that how high schools got started doing musicals. The one clue I do see is that the blog’s description begins: “A look at school operettas, popular from 1910 to 1950…”

What do you know about the history of high school musicals? When I was in high school, they seemed a distraction from the “real” work of high school, which I considered to be academics (after all, that was what I did best). Now, as a parent, I see how much they teach about teamwork, dealing with disappointment (not getting the part one wanted), commitment, hard work (not just learning lines but building scenery), and of course music. I’m glad they exist, I just wonder how they became such a big part of high school life.

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