Sunday, May 11, 2008

High School Musicals

Well, it's that time of year again. In the last three weeks I've been to two high school musical plays.

You know, I've developed something of a soft spot in my heart (head?) about these things. You see, I was in several when I was in high school. My own school didn't have a drama program; but the one in the next town over did have a small program (and a little shoebox of a theater, which was converted from a previously-unused storage room); and during my Junior year they had decided to stage a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

Of course, this is a very male-heavy show, and most of it is sung; so early on they decided they could use a few extra male bodies with already-changed voices. One of my teachers had a son who was to be in this production. Knowing of their casting shortages, she decided to inform me of the production, and got me (and my younger brother) in touch with the guys in charge.

I ended up landing the role of the Major General, and my younger brother wound up as one of the policemen.

The show was an absolute blast. It was the first real stage experience I got, not counting those elementary school deals where this person plays the tooth, and this person plays the toothbrush, and this person plays the courtroom judge who's trying the case to see who's at fault for the tooth decay....

Between the enjoyment of the acting and singing itself, and the camaraderie that was built with the others on the cast and in the crew, I was hooked enough to join three other productions before I finished high school. The summer after my Junior year I was in a local Junior College production of Grease, where I was the DJ at the party singing about doing the "Hand Jive." The following fall I was back at the neighboring school's production of Little Shop of Horrors, where I was the Dentist. (Now that was a fun role. Death scenes give plenty of opportunity to ham it up, especially when the cause of death is an overdose of laughing gas.) And later in my senior year I got drafted into our local J.C.'s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is another male-voice-heavy production of the sort that's hard to get fully casted. (Our "Hairy Bunch of Ishmaelites" were women, since we couldn't spare any of the men; we had them comb their long, blond hair forward, over their faces, and then had them wear shades over the hair, giving an effect much like Cousin It from the Addams Family. Hairy Ishmaelites, indeed.)

Four shows in one year!

And this is what set the stage (no pun intended) for me to go into Opera a few years later. And while I haven't been in a production in about a decade (aside from the occasional semi-staged Christmas or Easter production put on by our church), I still feel the pull; I still find myself tempted to see what kinds of local opera companies or Gilbert and Sullivan societies exist around here. Probably won't happen for a while, given the fact that I have three children and a wife who'd really like me to spend some time, you know... raising them. Still, one can dream...

But when I heard that a couple of the young ladies at our church were going to be in various productions, I figured this was a really good excuse to get out and get a little culture (such as it is). So about three weeks ago I grabbed the Pillowfight Fairy and went off to the first of these productions, a little play entitled Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The young lady from our church turned out to be the person cast in the eponymous lead role, and she (and the rest of the cast) did an excellent job. But all through the production I was wondering: Where did they get this magnificent theater? The thing was huge, and it was beautiful. It obviously had a gigantic backstage area. The theater was bigger than the one that Opera San Jose (my old company) had inhabited for many, many years, before moving to their current digs a few years back, with the help of lots of funds from the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. Someone generous benefactor must have put down a huge chunk of change to get that high school theater built.

The play itself is a fun little comedy about a farm girl who has moved to 1920's New York intending to take the world by storm, only to find that New York is filled with farm girls who want to take New York by storm, and that it doesn't particularly care for them. In the process there are all kinds of complications involving attempted seductions, and a kidnapping ring, and prohibition. The music is rather fun, with much of it being lifted from other sources--Gilbert and Sullivan and Auntie Mame, to name a few--but inserted into the story in somewhat different and unexpected ways for comedic effect. In all, I enjoyed my time there quite a bit.

And the Pillowfight Fairy?

Well, she loved the first hour or so; she liked all the dancing (tap dancing!) and singing. Of course, the story was a bit convoluted for a five-year-old. And the show ultimately went close to three hours, going way past her bedtime. She handled herself very well, all things considering. (At least she didn't melt down....) But I think I may have turned her off of plays for a while now.

But as we were filing out on our way to greet our young starlet, I did get to teach the Fairy how and when to say, "Bravissima!" I think she liked that part.

The production values on this show were just great, and I was amazed also at how many guys they had up there dancing and singing. I think this has to do with the fact that Folsom High is a big high school, and is in a rather wealthy district, so they have lots of students who go for these kinds of electives--not to mention the financial resources.


Last night my wife and I went to see another high school production. Turns out Tonya's parents were in town visiting the grandkids (and us, too, I suppose). Tonya and I figured out early in the day that we could foist the kids off on the grandparents and have an evening entirely to ourselves! This is the sort of thing that doesn't happen all that frequently, so we jumped at the opportunity.

Another young lady we know from church was in the chorus of her school's production of Once Upon a Mattress, which is a fairly cracked retelling of the story of The Princess and the Pea.

Truth be told, I was actually contemplating dragging the Pillowfight Fairy to see this one too, and I think she would have enjoyed it a little more than the other; the plot line is a little more accessible to a five-year-old. However, this is still a matter of degree; one of the sub-plots involves the fact that no one in the kingdom can get married until the Prince does; and, well... one of the knights has just gotten his betrothed pregnant by accident, so he becomes really really motivated to get a princess for the prince, so the Prince can get married, so that he can get married before everyone knows what he's done.

Well, my wife wisely talked me out of dragging the Fairy along. And so Tonya and I were able to have an evening to ourselves! Just the two of us! Without having to wipe anyone else's noses! And we got to eat at leisure--eat real Mexican food at leisure--and take a walk, and have a leisurely drive, and enjoy the play without wondering whether someone was about to have a meltdown.

The theater itself was fairly new, if not as well-apportioned as the one at Folsom High--but was still a couple orders of magnitude better than the one on which I sang the Major General song twenty (!) years ago. And in this production, they did something a little more ambitious than in Thoroughly Modern Millie: they forewent the canned music, and had the students man the orchestra pit. Now, the result was a bit squeaky and dissonant, as one might expect; but I give them credit for doing this. It is after all a school, and they're trying to give their music students good experience doing something that every professional musical theater and every professional opera needs.

Once Upon a Mattress is also a fun show. The Wikipedia entry states that "Once Upon a Mattress is a popular choice for high school drama programs and community theatre groups," and I can see why: it's obviously a lot of fun, especially if you have talented actors in the lead roles--and this production did. The evil, domineering queen was played by a young lady who could modulate her voice to have the same effect as fingernails on a chalkboard, and she (quite appropriately) dominated every scene she was onstage.

I only have one minor quibble with the casting, and it is indeed a minor one. The young actress who played the Princess Winifred did an excellent job--I found no fault in her acting. However, she didn't really look the part. One running joke about the character of Princess Winifred ("Fred" for short) is that she's energetic, athletic--more so than the prince--and muscular--much more so than the prince, and which is one of the reasons that he falls so madly in love with her. Winifred could be played to excellent effect by an actress who's six feet tall and on the beefy side. And the fact is, most drama departments have young ladies who fit this description to some degree, who have decent acting skills, but who will never get cast in most lead roles because they don't look the part of the shy, demure heroine. Given this fact, this would seem the perfect lead role to give to a lady who doesn't look like a traditional leading lady. The girl they cast as Winifred in this production looked a little too slim and pretty for the role. However--I need to assert that she did an absolutely wonderful job, and that she struck all the right poses and projected the right attitudes to convey the idea that she was a "buff chick". She did a good job.

(And those six-foot actresses who are slightly on the beefy side? Well, that's why God made Opera.) :-)

Anyway, the show was fun, and Tonya and I are glad that we went. When we got home, the Grandparents had put the kids in bed, so we didn't have much in the way of chores to do. It was really, really nice. Grandparents are cool.

So as I mentioned above, all this has me thinking about seeing what kind of opera companies or dramatic societies there are available in the area. Maybe not now, mind you--it would have to be a few years down the line, when the kids are a little older and don't require quite so much direct supervision.

And I've also been thinking about how we, as homeschooling parents, would go about giving these kinds of opportunities to our kids. After all, if we do homeschool through the high school years (as we are currently intending to do, although one can never tell this far in advance), it means that our kids will never attend a high school with a drama program. Of course, two of my own high-school-age productions were hosted at the local Junior College, so that's a possibility. And there may be other community-based organizations around that provide opportunities. We'll have to see what's available.

Any other Sacramento-area homeschool parents out there face this issue yet? How'd you handle it?

(And in case you're wondering, the Pillowfight Fairy is on track to grow pretty darn close to 6 feet tall. I'm going to have to teach her how to sing....)


MamaFish said...

Just wanted to "sign" your blog. I was googling McGuffey readers trying to find out why some sets have 4 and others have 6. I ended up on your post from 9/07. It was very helpful! I also have a dc born in Feb. 07. And one born in 2000, 2002, and 2004... and we homeschool. Well, thanks for your helpful post. Now I know what to look for.

SmallWorld said...

Not a Sacramento parent, but surely you must have community theatre opportunities there? If we have them here in East TN, you must, too! My daughter is involved in a community performing arts company, and that is just one of at least 4 in this area, for ages 5-adult.

Shez said...

My geography of the West coast could kindly be called sketchy. Is Sacramento considered to be the Bay Area? I know a woman who homeschooled her child in the Bay Area and I know that her daughter performed in operas and all sorts of stage musicals. I can find out the details for you.

WRT 3 hour productions. Look for school performances of all the plays, ballets, operas etc you want your daughter to attend. These are generally held during school mornings and are abridged versions. Here in Norfolk we generally pay between $7 and $15 per school performance. I generally arrange for groups of homeschoolers to attend them - this is how we get the discounted rates. When my kids were younger, I found this a great way to whet their appetites for the various art forms.

Shez over at Homeschooledtwins - also a parent

Wendy Power said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy Power said...

I hate typos.

There are a load of children's theater productions in Sacramento, for children to be IN and for children to ATTEND, with stories, staging and length appropriate to their attention spans and interests. Check out (Sacramento Area Regional Theater Alliance) or (Sacramento Stage & Theater). There is a lot going on in this town. Sacramento Opera Company is doing Pirates in November. Wanna go with us?

Chris said...


Ditto. Ibid. What he said.

Only I was in "Man of La Mancha" (you haven't lived until you've seen a skinny red-headed kid play Sancho Panza), "Guys and Dolls", and a few others I no longer can remember. Oh, and Neil Simon play - "Six Rooms River View".

Other than our church productions (minimal at best), we're still trying to find a good outlet for our kids. There is a great drama program about 40 minutes away (local, by our standards), so maybe we'll start encouraging that more in a few years. In the meantime, we remain happily in the audience.

D-G East (Chris)

jugglingpaynes said...

Why wait for high school? Homeschooling friends of ours have been happily staging backyard productions for five or six years now, since our kids were nine or ten. My oldest has been in a few of their shows. They've adapted books, Shakespeare, and last year they wrote and composed music for their very own musicals. It's a lot like watching the Little Rascals' productions. Much different from the affluent high school productions in our area that we can't even afford to attend at $20 a ticket.

Peace and Laughter!

B. Durbin said...

Wait— you're in the Sacramento area? Interested in Gilbert & Sullivan? And male?

Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer to this one— Light Opera Theater of Sacramento. Pretty much Gilbert & Sullivan (we just finished The Gondoliers) with occasional forays into other comedic operettas such as Man of La Mancha.

There's several upsides, one being that a private donation pays for a full orchestra. Another is that this company is geared towards working adults, and up to tech week requires no more than three evenings a week, usually only one or two (depending on the role.)

And the best one is that with the directors in question and the recurring cast members, there's a low level of the snarkiness that infests many theater companies, both professional and community. In other words, we ttry to be nice people and have a good time.

Sometime in the next month or so I'll be posting YouTube bits and pieces of the last performance and I'll be sticking them up at my blog. (That's a rather long timeline but there's reasons.) Please believe me when I say we're ALWAYS looking for male voices— it's a long time until tryouts (one production a year) and we'd love to see you!

Timothy Power said...

AAAhhh! I'm being recruited again!

Must... resist... must...

Hm. I'll think about it. Sounds like fun. B. Durbin, any idea what show you guys are planning on doing next year?

B. Durbin said...

I've been told "If it's Gilbert & Sullivan, it will be Ruddigore." That's the one about the curse. However, I do know that the director would love to be able to pull off The Merry Widow.

If it's Ruddigore, most of the male parts are the singing portraits of the former holders of the title of Ruddigore. (Yes, they do get to move.) Ghosts! Heh.

Carol Topp, CPA said...

I, too, love high school theater productions. Maybe because I was in lots of plays myself while in high school, or maybe it's just a fun, cheap date with my husband!

Last summer my homeschooled 14 yo dd was part of a summer production of The Complete Works of Shakespeare VERY Much Abridged. IOW, they did scenes from 5 Shakespeare plays and used Puck from A Midsummer's Night Dream as the Narrator to open and close each scene. I played Puck when my high school did AMND and my dd was given the role of Puck. Wow! She did a mother proud and it brought tears to my eyes when she invited the audience to "lend me your hands if we be friends...and Puck will make amends."

You could lead something small and fun like that. Just scenes from a famous play. My kids are part of a homeschool co-op that has had drama class for a few years. It is always very popular and an excellent use of co-ops.

To help you get started take a look at my new book Homeschool Co-ops: How to Start Them, Run Them and Not Burn Out(shameless plug I know) at

You can do it! Really! Start small, get lots of help and grow a little each year. Maybe someday Pillowfight Fairy will be on stage doing YOU proud!!

Carol Topp
author Homeschool Co-ops