As a theatre teacher at Granite Bay High School in Granite Bay, California, Kyle Holmes has witnessed plenty of drama on and off the stage. “I literally had students that would be crying as they tried to do their work or nervously pulling their hair out—this was a normal day at this school as they were getting ready for their show,” Holmes shares. It was an outward sign of the academic pressures to score well and build impressive college applications that students faced: “They would come off stage, and be like, ‘Well, I have 15 minutes before I have to go back on.’ They’d go sit backstage and keep studying.”
Composer-lyricist David Taylor Gomes, who served as the drama program’s music director, says his students’ drive stems from “that extreme, extreme pressure to be number one, to not let down the people in your life.” Holmes and Gomes dramatized that pressure with their musical Ranked, a new show set in a dystopian world where class rank determines your future, and students will do anything to be top of the class. Inspired by the high school students they worked with, the pair’s musical was in rehearsals for its first production at Granite Bay High School when the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal broke.
Its timely take on a larger cultural issue has turned the musical into a rising choice for high school theatre programs around the world. It gained enough attention that a staged New York City reading was underway when the COVID shutdown resulted in its postponement. The musical and its impact are also the subject of a new HBO documentary titled My So-Called High School Rank, which was released for streaming November 29.
To create Ranked, Holmes and Gomes conducted conversations with the students at Granite Bay High School, asking them what stories they felt needed to be told. Holmes shares, “They all kept coming back to: 'Everybody jokes about it. Everybody downplays it. Everybody pats us on the head and says, high school was hard for me, too. But you'll get through it.’” But as the students pointed out, some of their classmates don’t get through it. Citing teen suicide and drug abuse, the students told Gomes and Holmes, “Why do people keep telling us to put our heads down, and we’ll get through it, when that's not what's happening for a lot of us?”
But how to turn these students’ own experiences into a musical? “We wanted to write something that reflected the themes of the world, but where one thing was off—like in Urinetown,” answers Gomes.
So the pair started digging into the unbelievable, but true things happening in K-12 education. Some of the eyebrow-raising stories included teachers in Atlanta who changed their students’ tests for better scores and subsequent pay raises (they are now in prison), large numbers of high school students being pushed through graduation in Washington, D.C. without meeting educational requirements, and grade banks in China where students could take out loans to boost their GPAs (loans that they have to pay back with interest).
“Once we had a path, we opened it up to the students,” says Gomes. “We said, ‘if you want to write monologues or scenes or anything about your own experiences, go ahead.’” Fragments of what some of the students submitted ended up making it into the musical, which is fitting as every character in the show is a teenager. “You can learn so much from playing someone who's actually a lot like you,” explains Gomes. “And the plays that we're putting on in our high schools don't usually let people do that. We wanted to make sure that that was what we gave our students.”
The students themselves also contributed to the creation of their characters. One male student didn’t see himself reflected in the show’s male characters. Instead, there was a goofy female character named Carly that he tried out for, with Gomes’ and Holmes’ support. As Gomes told the student, “We're writing the show, we can make it whatever it needs to be.” The student put his own spin on the character, taking it in such a new direction that Gomes and Holmes wrote a new character inspired by the interpretation.
Some moments of the production led to the following question: Is life imitating art or art imitating life? For instance, students brought their textbooks onstage for a library scene—and would work on their real-life homework while performing. It was a moment that encapsulated the very issue Ranked was trying to bring to the attention of adults in the community. And it seems there was some success. Standing in the lobby every night after the show, holding the door open so everyone could leave, Holmes would eavesdrop into conversations between the students and the parents: “I heard parents turn to their kids and say, 'Oh, that was crazy. So glad that's not real life.’ And the kids would say, ‘What? This is my life.’”
And it’s not a conversation relegated to Granite Bay. The documentary My So-Called High School Rank investigates what that conversation looks like in Ripley, West Virginia and the Bronx in New York City as it chronicles the musical’s impact in high schools around the country. “For David and I, it was really encouraging and inspiring to see that it was not just our students that were experiencing and feeling this way about education,” says Holmes. “It looks different and feels different in each of these communities, but it all comes back to the same problem.”
Though the show has prompted conversations about an issue that is too large for one musical to fix, there are smaller and as-important gains Holmes and Gomes have seen it make on the students. Some are practical skills like practicing songwriting, book-writing, and learning to get through the first draft no matter how daunting the blank page is.
Then there are the less tangible ones. “I think that at the end of this process, our students had a lot of empathy that wasn't there before: empathy for each other, empathy for themselves,” says Holmes.
Their journey with the musical is still ongoing. Holmes and Gomes have stayed in touch with several of the students who inspired the musical, several of whom attended the New York premiere screening (that footage is also in the documentary). At the end of the day, there’s an even bigger lesson Holmes hopes everyone takes away from Ranked: “Young people's experiences matter, and they're relevant. They're stories that are worth telling, and their stories are worth all our attention.”