This question of which shows are appropriate for high school productions is a popular one on musical theatre forums and in Facebook groups about musicals, and has even been the subject of a few stories that have captured the attention of the press and websites. There are many debates to be had about whether Legally Blonde, RENT or Gypsy is an appropriate choice for a high school play, about who should have the power to choose the production and about who should shoulder the responsibility when something goes wrong. Cutting across all of those arguments is one that supersedes them all, and it has to do with the reason why a musical is selected for production at a school.
The root of the problem is when high schools, the audiences who visit high school productions and critics of high school shows, whether in the form of local reporters, bloggers or community members, forget that the primary function of a school production is to educate. That goes for people who are directly involved in the life of the school too.
This is the reason why shows that are beyond a high school student’s abilities get produced, why we see young performers copying the performances of Broadway stars gesture for gesture and inflection for inflection and why people feel that a teenager tackling a complex role should embody that role in all its complexity when – barring the occasional exception – there is some aspect of almost every role that is beyond a high school student’s abilities.
This is also the reason why certain people view junior shows or school editions with snobbish disdain, when the motivation for these shows is to make particularly difficult shows accessible in particular production contexts. The primary purpose of high school productions is to educate the students who attend that high school.
So the question to be asked is: is there a context where a production of Next to Normal, Spring Awakening or whatever production is being considered will be a means to fulfilling the mandate of a school to provide an holistic learning experience for its students? And if the answer is no, or if the show’s content or demands will compromise that environment, then perhaps the selection of the show needs to be scrutinized more closely.