High School Musicals Across the Triangle


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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.

Triangle Stars

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.”

Community Approach

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.

Curtain Call

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
apexdrama.com
Curtains
Feb. 27 - March 8

Cardinal Gibbons High School
cghsnc.org
The 1940's Radio Hour
March 7-9
March 14-16

Chapel Hill High School
chhs.chccs.k12.nc.us
Legally Blonde
April 24-26

Durham Academy
da.org
Urinetown the Musical
Feb. 13-15

Enloe High School
enloehs.wcpss.net
Thoroughly Modern Millie
March 19-22

Green Hope High School
greenhopefinearts.org
Grease
Feb. 27 - March 1


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Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
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We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
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River Jam at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings together live musical performances throughout the year to a one-of-a-kind outdoor venue, right in the middle of the world’s largest...

Cost: $6

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Contact Name: Jenny Hill
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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
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Farmers markets are essential to the livelihood of farmers and food producers and are exempt from the Governor's Stay at Home Order (page 6). Farmers markets offer an efficient way for residents to...

Cost: free

Where:
Holly Springs Cultural Center
300 W. Ballentine St.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Farmers Market Coordinator
Telephone: 919-567-4010
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  Meet at the Waterwise Garden (first parking lot on right) Join our bird enthusiast, Vernon, for an easy walk while looking and listening for our feathered friends. Discover...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Parents, bring your child to class with you. Children 10 years...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Must register in advance. Space is limited. Parents, bring your...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
Website »

More information

Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
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Calling all Black tech leaders and visionaries! Are you looking to spur future collaborations, discover new business and career opportunities, and invest in this community? Join us for T.H.E. State...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Durham Convention Center
301 W Morgan St
Durham, NC  27701
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Contact Name: Tarryn Henry
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Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
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Live online classes for kids - FREE! Kids and families can join our online classes from home while school is out. Our special guests teach kids about art, medicine, music, cooking, science and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online at your Home
265 Cambridge Ave #60923
Palo Alto, NC  94306
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Sponsor: ActivityHero
Telephone: 800-437-6125
Contact Name: Mabelle
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Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

More information

The 16th Annual (Virtual) Beaver Queen Pageant, Beavers in the Stream! The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-423-1502
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

More information

We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
Website »

More information

The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver personalities and compete for the title of Beaver Queen with their fashion,...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-698-9729
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

More information

River Jam at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings together live musical performances throughout the year to a one-of-a-kind outdoor venue, right in the middle of the world’s largest...

Cost: $6

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Contact Name: Jenny Hill
Website »

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