Every spring, high schools here traditionally put on a musical. It usually involves a lot of students in the orchestra, the cast, and the technical crew to put it on. Generally the quality is pretty much what you might expect from a high school performance, and unless you are a parent, relative, or friend of someone involved in the show, you take little note of it.
This spring, however, one particular high school here on Staten Island was getting a lot of attention regarding their Spring Musical. Susan E. Wagner High School was performing Les Misérables, a very ambitious show for a high school to produce - even the slightly condensed school version. Yet, the word was that the show was far beyond the quality that one might expect from a high school production. Having been involved in musical theater myself for more than 40 years (as a musician and musical director) I considered going to see it, even though I do not have a child in the school. (Well, not as a student at least - my son is a science teacher there.) But, I never got around to it.
The St. George Theater, a nearly 100 year old landmark theater, went to see a performance. They liked what they saw so much that they decided to produce two performances at the St. George. This high school show would be performed in a classic theater, with a professional technical crew! The theater would arrange for and pay the rights for the two performances, the technical staff, and the transportation of all the sets from the school to the theater. I might mention now that this theater sits only blocks away from the ferry terminal where you would take a short ferry ride to get to Manhattan, and Broadway itself. These high school students would indeed be performing in the shadow of the Great White Way!
Before the show started, the producers came out to say a few words about how they had seen the show at the high school and were so impressed that they decided to offer the school the opportunity to perform at the theater. They introduced the Deputy Boro President who also said a few words, but then introduced yet another dignitary - the Chancellor of the New York City Public School System ... the largest school system in the country. This was indeed a big event and all of the big guns where coming out. The fact that he came this evening - despite what you may think of his agenda - showed that he did indeed see this as a very positive thing for NYC's schools. It was wonderful seeing children honored for something positive for a change.
The sets were not what you would expect of a high school production. Each set was a work of art, and they even had the signature revolving barricade.
The staging was on par with the rest of the production, and even some of the more difficult choreography pieces from the original show were kept and simplified so that this cast of non-professionals could perform it with the same effect as you would have seen on Broadway.
But of course, my favorite part of a show is always the orchestra and this one did not disappoint. The musical director - the assistant principal in charge of the music and performing arts departments, a former classmate of my own kids, and a musician I have performed with in the past - put together a full orchestra including all the necessary voices from strings, to brass, woodwind and percussion, which sounded totally professional.
There were times I totally forgot that I was watching a high school show!
As good as the show itself was, the story here was how the community, in the form of our most prestigious theater, recognized the good things that the faculty and students of Susan E. Wagner High School had accomplished. With the bad rap that teens and schools have been getting lately, it's important to see the positive side as well.