When you think about subjects appropriate for the high school stage, some people might take Big Fun’s advice from the Heathers movie: “Teenage suicide; don’t do it.” In reality, controversial shows tackling tough topics like suicide, sexuality, and more are becoming increasingly popular at high schools across the country. The complications of presenting shows, like Spring Awakening, Rent, Next to Normal, 13, Heathers, and more with mature themes can be myriad, but teachers, students, and creators feel ready for the challenge. Some schools are able—and proud—to perform the material as originally written, while others opt for junior versions. Whether the show is in its original form or “junior-fied,” schools across the country are finding ways to present the modern musicals their students love.
Danielle Miller is in charge of the theatre program at Hoboken High School in New Jersey, and she and her students are gearing up to put on Spring Awakening in February 2018. It’s a part of her ongoing mission to expose her students to shows she believes will make them evaluate their lives and think in a different way. “We live in a world where everything is being covered up or changed,” explains David Rivera, a student of Miller’s. “Sometimes the only way to hear these types of experiences is through art or theatre.”
Another of her students, Hannah Mack, agrees. “It’s important to perform shows like Spring Awakening. It’s bringing light to a tough topic and showing the audience we need to talk about it.”
Miller commits to mounting unaltered shows, a benefit, she says, of being located in such a diverse, urban town across the river from New York City. “There are places where you’d be fired and it’d be in the papers. It’s a shame, because those school districts are saying things like pregnancy, homosexuality, and suicide are not acceptable,” Miller says. “These are the types of problems our youth are facing in the world; they’re not going away.” The shows with deeper meaning, like their past productions of Rent, Working, and The Laramie Project, have brought audiences to their feet after each performance.
Over a thousand miles away, Heather Biddle just finished directing the first production of Heathers’ new high school edition at Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas. Despite the hurdle of school board approval, Biddle knew the high school version would be faithful to the darker source material with enough changes to make it appropriate for her school.
The revised edition of the piece, she says, allows “even a more conservative school” to perform a show like Heathers. She also went out of her way to make sure the show was handled responsibly. “At every show we had community outreach with teen support groups, therapists, and organizations that support being kind to yourselves and others,” she says. “I personally enjoy the high school edition more than the original. The message of the show is to make it beautiful...the script is pure magic. It has just enough bite and all the heart.”
Theatre that engages students, and feels relevant to them, inspires the next generation of artists. One such student is Alethea Bakogeorge, a current BFA candidate at Viterbo University and apprentice at Williamstown Theatre Festival. The first time she felt like a “legitimate theatre artist” was performing in 13 in high school. “It doesn’t treat the problems of young people as trivial,” she says. “When you're a teenager, the world feels so overwhelming and your feelings seem so huge, and no one tells you that it's okay to make mountains out of what adults will call molehills.” Her time in 13, a show that validated her personal experiences, crystallized her desire to continue being onstage. “It made me feel like my voice meant something, that I was having an impact. I wanted to continue to do that professionally.”
She also had a particularly moving experience performing in Spring Awakening. “I was hearing about LGBTQI+ kids my age who were committing suicide because they didn't feel like they were living in a world where they could see a future,” She says. “Moments like the one we were putting on stage were happening frighteningly often at schools across our country and around the world... I think that was the first moment where I truly realized that the theatre can really hold a mirror up to its audience.”
And that’s true of theatre whether in its original form or if in the junior versions of shows labored over by original creators in order to expand the audience of shows with sensitive content. Laurence O’Keefe, who co-wrote Heathers with Kevin Murphy, had a high school edition in mind as soon as he and Murphy made the deal to license the show with Samuel French. Samuel French, one of the world’s leading publishing and licensing company of plays and musicals, engaged iTheatrics, which specializes in workshopping youth editions of existing shows. Marty Johnson, the Director of Education at iTheatrics, says the goal isn’t censorship, but rather creation of librettos to reach a wider audience. “The kids get to work on these great shows, which is an amazing thing,” says Johnson. Of Heathers, specifically, he notes, “There are still guns, there’s still a bomb. Those things are essential to the story.” But a song like “Blue”, an explicit comedic number about sexual frustration, has been replaced, but not to the detriment of the show.
“Our worry was not that we wouldn’t be able to deliver a cuss-word-free edition,” O’Keefe says. “Our worry was that that edition would be neutered and unrecognizable, lacking the DNA of the original film’s greatness and lacking its punch.” These concerns turned out to be unfounded, and O’Keefe thinks some of the changes were actually improvements on the Off-Broadway edition. “I’ve seen how inspired kids get when they are trusted with those ideas, stories, and songs. Of course, something can be lost when a grown-up, scary, or upsetting show is softened to be a bit less upsetting or push fewer buttons. But something can be gained when kids get an early chance to confront scary questions and try out awesome new possibilities.”