High School Musicals Across the Triangle
Disney’s High School Musical, which catapulted heartthrob Zac Efron to stardom, was the most popular Disney Channel Original Movie ever produced. One look behind the scenes of musical productions here in Triangle high schools explains not only why the movie was so wildly popular, but also why high school productions across the area remain a huge draw for participants and audiences alike.
“The theater is such a great place,” says Alex Davis Isaac, a junior at Green Hope High School in Cary who is stage manager for the school’s musical this spring. “Everybody is so open and welcoming. It’s like a family working together.”
High school musicals are truly a collaborative effort, pulling students from across the fine arts in areas such as dance, drama, chorus, orchestra, band and technical theater. Both students and staff reach out across disciplines to make a high school musical happen, and the Triangle is home to some long-standing programs with the expertise to bring it all together and create magical nights at the theater.
Local high school musicals and cast members have received regional and national accolades. One of the most popular musical-producing high schools in the area is Durham School of the Arts, a magnet school that focuses on visual arts and theater. Durham School of the Arts serves grades 6-12 and was recognized in 2013 by U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 high school in North Carolina for overall school performance, performance of minority and low-income students, and college readiness. The school has been producing musicals since 1996 and now offers three or four nonmusical productions and one musical production each year. The musical this year took place in fall and was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a small production compared to Wizard of Oz last spring.
“Our large-scale productions pull students from our choral, dance, strings, band and theater departments, and we all learn so much from each other,” says Douglas Graves, a DSA teacher and chair of the school’s theater department.
The Triangle Rising Star Awards, a qualifying program for the National High School Musical Theater Awards, recognized the following schools and actors in 2013: Enloe High School’s production of Once Upon a Mattress, Best Musical; Sam Hamashima of Green Hope High School, Best Actor; Anna Higginson of Sanderson High School, Best Actress; and Durham Academy’s Oklahoma; Best Ensemble. The two winning actors received a weeklong trip to New York City to learn from Broadway professionals.
Planning and Persistence
Directors at schools across the Triangle say musicals can take more than a year of planning, typically starting with scripts, then auditions and finally building toward a frenzied culmination of nightly rehearsals before the spring production begins.
Kevin Ferguson, artistic director of Gibbons Drama at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, says fine arts students joke that the real “March Madness” is not college basketball, but spring musical rehearsals. Ferguson recalls hearing that “directing a musical is like trying to control a runaway freight train,” and says the description is definitely on the mark.
Now in his eighth year as director of the school’s drama club, Ferguson says, “you become pretty much the world’s largest dysfunctional family” during a high school musical production. “Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and plunge right in. Once we get into production week, we rehearse from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every night … It sounds crazy, but it’s actually kind of fun, because everything starts coming together.”
Experienced directors agree that it takes a lot of creative vision to bring all of the parts of the musical together. Thomas Drago, theater director and drama teacher at Chapel Hill High School who has directed plays and musicals for more than 20 years, has been involved in more than 100 productions. He says the Hanes Theatre at Chapel Hill High School is well supported by the community and has a long-standing reputation of excellence onstage and backstage. When his students performed Hairspray there, they played to an audience of 500 people. For Dracula it was nearly twice that many.
During a recent phone interview, Drago was calling out instructions to crew members as he checked over props and sets during a rehearsal for the school’s fall play, Night of the Living Dead — his first black-and-white-only production that required the entire cast to wear copious amounts of makeup. Drago says he tells students that the stage is the canvas and his job as director is to use all of the artists who are working together to paint a picture on the stage.
Margaret Cook, the musical director at Green Hope High School, says a musical happens “one step at a time, starting with the director's vision, music rehearsals, set building ... everyone working at what they do best. And little by little, it all comes to the stage and excites everyone as it starts to take shape.”
A high school musical production is a massive community effort, from lighting and sound, to costume designs, actors and music. But it all begins with a director who sifts through scripts and meets with choreographers, music directors and technical directors to choose the best show. Teachers often offer students leadership roles in areas such as costuming, lighting, sound, set design and props.
“Everyone in the arts department is involved in the show in some way, from visual art to tech theater to chorus and band,” Cook says.
Most schools have a secret weapon when it comes to handling long rehearsal days and complicated set designs — parents.
Debbie Fetter, a Green Hope High School parent and member of the high school’s fine arts board, says parents help with everything from props to feeding the crew during rehearsals. Green Hope High School’s volunteers catered food for 124 participants in last year’s musical during evening rehearsals. But feeding the crew when they practice from early afternoon until 9 p.m. is just one way parents help out, Fetter says. Many high schools have similar volunteer groups that also assist with costumes and props.
“It takes a lot more preparation than people might think,” Fetter says, adding that just figuring out where to stand during each scene takes the students a while, then adding dance and music to the mix makes it more complex. Then there is the set design.
“All of these things that the parents find or come up with make the show that much more spectacular,” Fetter says.
Fetter says her son, Daniel, has grown as an actor and a person after spending three years in the Green Hope High School drama program. “I think it really helps to build their self-confidence, being out there in front of an audience.”
As a parent, she says it’s gratifying to help out as a volunteer and witness your child find his passion.
Gibbons’ parents often ask their director why he is not outside in the lobby after the show where everyone can congratulate him on the musical.
“I tell them the real energy is watching my kids come out of the directing room and seeing how transformed they are as people when they come off the stage before they go back for curtain call,” Ferguson says.
Drago of Chapel Hill High School says the theatrical arts are “important because it is a fundamental quality of human beings to be artistic and chronicle human experience through art.” He enjoys sitting in the audience after months of preparation and watching the students run the show. For a teacher, seeing a student master the art of working independently is the real reward, he says.
Graves of Durham School of the Arts says he likes producing shows that can include representation from the entire student body, since the high school and middle school students there are separated during the school day.
“Coming together to do something that they all love creates bonds and friendships that last throughout their school careers and beyond,” he says. “I love the collaborative art that is the musical!”
Isaac at Green Hope High School says acting is a creative outlet that also allows her to be with her friends. “Acting is a really good way to break out of your shell and practice being someone else for a little while,” she says. “It’s also a great way to make friends.”
The productions give Triangle youth — and their directors — an opportunity to exercise their passion for drama, dance, music, design and technical skills — all through the colossal undertaking that is the high school musical. The shows have become part of a high school’s identity, like homecoming and prom.
For some students, musicals are a stepping stone to a profession in the arts. For others, they are a chance to expand horizons. But for everyone involved, these community productions are an opportunity to make memories that will last a lifetime.
Carol McGarrahan is a freelance writer in the Triangle.
A Few High School Musicals Across the Triangle
Apex High School
Feb. 27 - March 8
Cardinal Gibbons High School
The 1940's Radio Hour
Chapel Hill High School
Urinetown the Musical
Enloe High School
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Green Hope High School
Feb. 27 - March 1