Cast System

For starry-eyed high school students, today’s ambitious musical productions mean longer hours, harder work—and a license to spit.

The cast for Nutley High School’s spring production of Into the Woods included, from left, Meghan McGrath (as the baker’s wife), Taylor Lockwood (the witch), and Christopher Mangum (the baker).
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

The trees overhanging Nutley High School have just started to show autumn colors, but already some of the students are fast-forwarding to spring. That’s prime time for high school musicals, and on this early fall morning the drama department has just posted outside the choir room a list of who won which roles. Hopes will be dashed, ambitions will be heart-flutteringly stirred, and every student with a penchant for the stage will remind him or herself that, whatever else happens, the show—in this case, Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s wry retelling of Grimms’ fairy tales—must go on.

The impulse to go on may not be foremost in the mind of the senior who has just located her name on the list and learned that the plum roles she had hoped for—Cinderella, the witch, and the baker’s wife—have gone to other students, but it will likely reassert itself later. Meanwhile, across town, a freshman out sick with a cold leaps from her bed with a shriek of joy when she learns she has snagged the part of Little Red Riding Hood.

This unfolding drama, which kicked off weeks earlier with auditions and would continue through the final performance of Into the Woods in late March, has all the trappings of a hit teen TV series: camaraderie, competitiveness, nail-biting suspense, raw talent, comic relief—not to mention starry-eyed students, dedicated teachers, and some of the most bewitching tunes ever to bedazzle Broadway.

But while it may sound like Disney’s High School Musical or the Golden Globe-winning Glee, the behind-the-scenes drama is real, fraught with creative crises and budgetary hurdles.

If your image of the genre was forged from your own youthful experience (and you graduated sometime before the turn of the millennium), the expression high school musical may conjure cardboard sets, tossed-off costumes, gross over-acting, a squawking school orchestra, and earnest, untrained voices. But high school musicals are serious business these days, with grown-up ambitions, professional polish, and budgets that would impress an off-Broadway impresario.

While schools continue to mount chestnuts like Oklahoma! and Bye Bye Birdie, they’re increasingly venturing into edgier territory with shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Urinetown. Some of that can, in fact, be credited to the High School Musical juggernaut, which has helped attract a new generation of musical-comedy enthusiasts with its message that kids who sing and dance and act are potentially as cool as those who flourish a pom-pom or snag a downfield pass.

At many high schools, the quintessential American art form has gotten a push from that quintessential American motivator—competition—as a growing number of local drama organizations offer their own versions of Broadway’s Tony awards. In New Jersey, Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse recently celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of its Rising Star program, which honors the cream of the state’s high school musical productions in 21 categories, from acting and directing to costuming and lobby display.

“The Paper Mill program fosters an environment where everyone’s striving to raise the bar,” says Michael Cundari, coordinator of music for the Nutley school district and director of Into the Woods (and, as it happens, a Nutley alum).

Raising the bar even higher are the National High School Musical Awards, cofounded in 2009 by Broadway’s Nederlander Alliances LLC and the Pittsburgh CLO, a nonprofit committed to the preservation of American musical theater.

The truth is, trophies talk—especially to school boards. “Because there’s a competition involved, school districts are investing in their arts programs, just as they have in the past for their sports teams,” says Van Kaplan, executive producer of the Pittsburgh CLO. “And when you see that kind of investment, the quality level goes up: You get better costumes, better sets, better choreographers.”

For the 2009-2010 school year, Nutley’s board of education came through with $7,000 to pay for rights to the show and some of the staff salaries. Another $25,000—for, among other things, sets, costumes, sound, and a professional orchestra—had to be raised largely from program ads and ticket sales. (Each of the four performances would attract an audience of 600 to 700 people.) It’s no wonder that Cundari begins every production by questioning his sanity.

High school productions in New Jersey often benefit from a proximity to Broadway. Lighting and set design for Nutley High School’s musicals, for instance, have been handled for the past three years by James Gardner, a Nutley resident and stage electrician who took time off from the Broadway production of Fela! to devote himself full-time (and gratis) to Into the Woods. Recent productions have been choreographed by Justin Greer, an actor and veteran of Broadway shows like Shrek the Musical and The Producers.

Shows distinguished by this level of professionalism tend to elicit the kind of fierce dedication among students—not to mention demands on their time—that generate pride and stress in equal measure. Jason Levine, a junior playing the pivotal role of narrator, had to give up his after-school job and nearly dropped out of the crew team due to a conflict with rehearsals—which, by the end of the season, can total more than 250 hours for a typical Nutley High School production.

“The challenge of this production, for me, is the amount of lines I have,” Levine says. “I’ve put in a lot more time with this show than with others I’ve done.” Though Levine’s long-term ambitions run more toward the military than the dramatic (he’s hoping to attend the U.S. Naval Academy after graduation), he’s put off crew, he says, to “continue the mission”–a turn of phrase that reveals the depth of his commitment to the show.

For students who hope to make acting a career, that commitment runs even deeper. Taylor Lockwood, the willowy blonde playing the witch, spent seemingly endless hours honing her complex character, who ranges from vituperative to sweetly maternal—sometimes in the same scene. “I don’t want to play her like Bernadette Peters or Vanessa Williams,” she says, referring to two of the best-known actresses to inhabit the role. Lockwood may be a sophomore, but she’s nothing if not grown-up about her ambitions.

Gianna Ferrara, a sweet-faced brunette with a crystalline soprano voice, loves the rush of being onstage and the camaraderie that comes from spending so many hours working toward a communal goal. Ferrara, a senior, plans to go into teaching, but, she says, “wherever I’m teaching, I’d like to be in charge of the drama productions and musical theater program.”

On an overcast afternoon in mid-January, Ferrara is trying on her Cinderella costume (crafted from her grandmother’s wedding gown) in the Nutley choir room. Vintage 1970s, the room has curved walls, maroon plastic chairs, a green linoleum floor, and a nervously blinking fluorescent light. Maybe it’s the light, but Ferrara is looking pale today. Summoned to the auditorium, she shrugs off the dress and shuffles across the hall in jeans and a pair of brown Uggs. When she appears onstage, Cundari frowns. “We do not rehearse in Uggs,” he announces to the cast as a whole. “We do not rehearse in slippers. I want your feet in proper shoes. Otherwise, it just makes you walk crummy.”

Ferrara looks stricken. It doesn’t help that she’s still struggling to memorize her lines. She’s got to stumble onto the stage, an entrance with great comic potential, but she’s having trouble making it look convincing. (High school musical lesson number one: Falling is scary, even when you’re faking it.) She falls again and again, until she’s allowed to continue with the scene, which ends with her glimpsing Jack’s beanstalk. This time it’s her line—“It looks like a giant beanstalk rising into the sky!”—that she stumbles over.

“If you don’t know your lines,” Cundari tells her, “get a script.” When he asks about her character’s motivation for leaving the stage, she hesitates. “I’m scared?” she asks.

Two weeks later, the cast is assembled in the auditorium, watching the show’s two princes work their way through “Agony,” a paean to the delicious pain of unrequited love, and a potential comic tour de force that is not quite happening. Nicco DiRenzi, a junior who plays Rapunzel’s prince, is nailing the comedy like someone who was born to ham it up, but sophomore Brian Graff, whose singing voice is just about flawless, hasn’t hit his comedic stride. To help Graff hone his gestures, choreographer Greer is offering his take on the characters. “These guys,” Greer says of the princes, “are absolute buffoons. On the surface, they’re everything you would want in a Prince Charming. And they’re zero underneath. There is comedy in this.”

Greer acknowledges the challenges of choreographing a high school production, especially one as multilayered as Into the Woods, and offers Graff as an example: “He’s very musical, and his impulse is to feel the phrases and be very beautiful. But his prince isn’t like a typical princely character— he’s a boor. And that’s hard.”

When Graff sings the word agony, Greer directs him to curl one arm over his head and clutch at his heart with the other. Then he asks both actors to do the whole scene again. When they sing the last line—“I must have her to wife”—in a teasing falsetto, cast members watching from the audience laugh. Greer looks relieved.

When Cundari chose Into the Woods as this spring’s production, he knew what he was getting into. “It’s one of my favorite musicals,” he says. “It is an amazing work that is truly demanding on the performer on so many levels—technically, theatrically, emotionally. We knew from the start it would be a challenge to perform it with high school students but decided it was something that would really benefit them as actors, musicians, and people.”

From the beginning, it was clear that many of the kids were getting lost in the thickets of Sondheim’s complex and unpredictable rhythms. Michael Egues, the impish sophomore who plays Jack (of beanstalk fame) and whose professional résumé includes TV (Law and Order) and commercials (Macy’s, Chuck E. Cheese), found Sondheim daunting from the get-go. “I saw a couple of songs on YouTube,” he says, “and I was like, I’m not feeling this.” He continues to be frustrated by the constant need to count beats and bars in his head.

The show also presents its share of visual challenges, Cundari notes. Transforming the witch from ugly to beautiful in a matter of seconds and building a massive tree and a massive tower are serious obstacles when your ambition is unlimited and your budget is not.

On a Sunday morning in late February, though, Cundari is not thinking about sets or makeup; he’s worrying about the basics—things like making sure the audience understands the words the actors are singing.

That’s especially crucial in this play, where, he says, “everything happens in song.” Into the Woods, in fact, is a torrent of words, many of them delivered in machine-gun staccato. That’s a stretch for adolescents, who tend to swallow their words. So Cundari, whose own enunciation is as crisp as a whip-crack, is in take-no-prisoners mode. He stops the cast mid-song: “Your diction is horrible!”

He faces a wall of downcast faces, and his voice softens. “You’re too good to sing like that.” His good-cop persona lasts until their next attempt at the show’s title song. “Stop!” he commands. “Mezzopiano! You should be spitting! Does anyone have spinal meningitis? Swine flu? SARS? Spit, or I’ll start spitting at you!”
And so they spit their way through the song, which could well be an anthem for the making of this show—and maybe for the crucible of adolescence itself:

You go into the woods,
Where nothing’s clear,
Where witches, ghosts
And wolves appear.
Into the woods
And through the fear,
You have to take the journey.

A few weeks farther into the journey, and the cast is now singing “into the woods,” rather than “into uh woods”—a small triumph that allows Cundari the luxury of working on the little flourishes of staging that can make the difference between amateurish and something that wins a Rising Star award. Cinderella’s wretched stepsisters, who at this point in the play have been rendered blind for their selfishness, are rife with comic potential, and Cundari wants to go beyond the present staging, which has the witch giving one of them a little push. “It would be funny if you gave a wave in her face, and a look, and then the push,” he says to Taylor Lockwood. She does it, and, yes, it’s funnier than it was. (High school musical lesson number two: It’s okay to mess with the classics.)

Meanwhile, set designer Gardner is working on his potentially brilliant solution to the budgetary challenges of building a tower and a tree: With the help of ex-NHS student Henry Meola, he’s constructing a 16-foot-high, two-sided, revolving tower-tree on wheels. He’s a little anxious about the fact that actual people will have to climb into the thing. “The last thing we want is the Leaning Tower of Rapunzel,” he says with a nervous laugh.

Sunday morning, March 14, four days to go, and the entire cast is in costume. Uggs have given way to golden slippers, sweatshirts to ball gowns, jeans to velvet pantaloons. Thomasina Hyland, a former Nutley drama teacher and now the show’s costume designer, is making last-minute adjustments. Petite, slim, and looking a couple of decades younger than her 69 years, she has been working with kids for more than four decades, and she has not lost her zeal. Right now she’s dealing with one of the stepsisters, who is complaining that she can’t fit into her dress, and Rapunzel, who’s tripping over hers, and Cinderella’s prince, who needs his seams pinned.

In her career, Hyland has seen costumes go from make-do to over-the-top, something she credits in part to audience expectations. “The more sophisticated the audiences got,” she says, “the more sophisticated and Broadway-like the costumes got.”

Hyland has scoured thrift shops and students’ closets, ripping, recycling, dyeing, and repurposing: As in a fairy tale, wedding dresses have been transformed into ball gowns; a faux fur coat is now a wolf pelt; and a lacy red-and-black dress jacket has become Little Red’s eye-popping cape. The night before, in her quest for costume fodder, she got lost and ran out of gas in Paterson—just another day in high school-musical season.

It’s two days before opening night, and the production is nowhere close to finished. The smell of fresh paint wafts into the auditorium from the hallway, where students from the art department are transforming 8-foot plywood panels into illuminated-manuscript pages for the lobby display. Backstage, Gardner and his set-design assistants rush to finish the giant’s head that will thud onstage in Act II. Elisabeth Erdmann, the senior playing Rapunzel, is sucking on cough drops, nursing a sore throat. And everyone is nervous to see if Christopher Mangum, a senior known for his perpetual smile and general joie de vivre, can pull off the lead role of the baker.

In the previous year’s production, The Producers, Mangum was near perfect as the flamboyantly off-kilter director Roger DeBris, but the baker is a stretch for him, dramatically and vocally. “He’s shy and unsure of himself, and I’m loud and proud and very happy,” Mangum says.

He’s had to force his natural singing voice, which he describes as “really forward and resonant and high up,” into a lower register, and he’s not happy with the results. When he launches into “No More,” his big number in act 2, you can almost hear the communal intake of breath. “No more questions,” he sings, “no more tests,” and he’s feeling it, and yes, it’s nearly perfect. (High school musical lesson number three: There’s a reason for all those interminable rehearsals.)

If the story of this production were more like, say, 42nd Street, opening night would be flawless, stars would be born, and awards assured. But like Sondheim’s body of work, the story behind this particular piece is nuanced. For one thing, the sound system is not cooperating, and when Rapunzel gets to sing her bravura solo from the tower, her mike is switched off. Luckily, her throat has rebounded and she belts out the number with show-must-go-on aplomb.

As the show does go on, there are occasional lapses in diction and a few dropped notes, but Cinderella delivers her lines as if she were born saying them and the two princes are so perfectly boorish they bring down the house. Someone overhears a Rising Star judge admiring the tower-tree. And when the cast comes together in the final song, their soaring harmonies have the resonance of genuine understanding:

Into the woods –
You have to grope,
But that’s the way
You learn to cope.
Into the woods,
To find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.

Sunday, March 21, an hour after the last performance, the cast is back in jeans and sweatshirts, hauling away sets and breaking down the lobby decor. Pamela Henning, more recently known as Little Red Riding Hood, stands on a ladder yanking at a cloth beanstalk. She looks wistful.

“The first night we didn’t make one mistake,” she says, “and of course, it’s the last one.”

The word of the day is sad. Ask virtually anyone here how they feel and that’s how they’ll answer, especially the seniors, who know that this is The End. Right now, they’re fixated on the journey they’ve just taken, but soon enough, like all young adults, they’ll be hurtling forward again, into the future. Wherever they find themselves, they’ll share the knowledge that, for six months in 2010, they went through the woods together and jousted with giants—including that wiliest of taskmasters, Stephen Sondheim himself.

Postscript: At this year’s Rising Star Awards in June, Nutley High School’s production of Into the Woods received three honorable mentions (for James Gardner’s set design, Thomasina Hyland’s costume design, and Pamela Henning’s portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood) and garnered only a single award (for Outstanding Lobby Display). High school musical lesson number four: If you can’t deal with rejection, go into accounting.

Hitching Their Dreams to a Rising Star

For cast and crew of the scores of high school musicals mounted across the state each year, Paper Mill Playhouse’s Rising Star awards represent the ultimate acknowledgment of talent and tenacity. A nod from Paper Mill not only looks great on a college résumé; for some—including Laura Benanti (who won the Tony award in 2009 for her role in Gypsy opposite Patti Lupone) and film actress Anne Hathaway (who was nominated for, but didn’t win, a Rising Star)—it can also be a stepping stone to a professional career. In 2009, Rising Star winner Julia Knitel, a 16-year-old actress at Fair Lawn High School, went from Paper Mill to the National High School Musical Awards to the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie, where she was named the show’s dance captain.

The awards are open to a maximum of 100 schools, with each production evaluated by four judges from a pool of more than 70, comprising mostly retired teachers, school theater directors, and community-theater veterans. Eventually, those 100-odd shows are winnowed down to about 25, and then to 10, which receive either a nomination or an honorable mention. One of the nominees is declared the winner in each of the 21 categories. Each year, the program awards five $1,000 scholarships, as well as scholarships to Paper Mill’s competitive Summer Musical Theater Conservatory.

Rising Star has inspired other similar programs nationwide, and it’s been a boon to high school theater departments throughout the Garden State. “Because Rising Star provides feedback to all the schools that participate,” says Lisa Cooney, Paper Mill’s director of education, “it makes them push the envelope a little farther every year.”

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