On the new NBC drama Rise, a high-school drama club puts on the groundbreaking, rock-tinged musical Spring Awakening, thanks to the vision of its novice leader, Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor).
In fact, “Mr. Mazzou” was inspired by real-life teacher Lou Volpe, who transformed the drama department at a high school in Levittown, Pennsylvania — and whose experience is documented in the popular book Drama High — and Rise‘s version of Spring Awakening is the result of a multi-part team collaboration led by creator Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and music arranger Tom Kitt (composer of Broadway’s Next to Normal and music director of Fox’s Grease Live! among many other musical projects).
On May 11, Atlantic Records will release Rise Season 1: The Album, but the show (airing Tuesday nights) is currently in the midst of its first 10 episodes. In advance of episode 3, Katims and Kitt spoke to Billboard about putting Spring Awakening on network TV.
Jason, I know you started out as a playwright — have you always been a big musical theater fan? And what made you want to loop Tom into the project?
Katims: I started writing plays after college and eventually wound up getting into television almost accidentally, but I never really did musical theater even though I loved it. Especially in recent years, as the form seems to be evolving and getting bolder, like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home, all of these incredible shows have really made me feel like the form could be so enticing and exciting and also so personal.
When I started writing the Rise pilot and thinking about what the story we wanted to tell was, the idea of doing Spring Awakening became more and more exciting to me because it felt so thematically connected to what was going on with the students’ lives. I liked the idea of launching with a show that was teenagers playing teenagers. But I honestly had no idea what it meant to do musical theater. When [producer] Jeffrey Seller introduced me to Tom — he just really had an incredible understanding of Spring Awakening itself. And he was so invested in the story he was telling, it’s personal to him.
Kitt: As someone who’s worked as a musical director in schools, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing kids of any age — but certainly high school, when they can start to take on musicals that have a little more of an edge to them — bring their personal stories to the characters. I was attracted to how Jason and the team wanted to tell the story in an authentic way and not suddenly press a button and everyone is a Broadway star.
Putting Spring Awakening on at a high school seems just as challenging as putting it on network television. Did you encounter any of the same obstacles Lou does in deciding to make it the focus of this first season?
Katims: When I first took on the show and decided to do Spring Awakening, I had actually never seen it. I got a DVD of Lou Volpe’s production of it, and I also got to watch it at the performing arts library in New York with [the show’s book writer] Steven Sater, and he talked me through it. But I also went to see a local production at a high school in Los Angeles. I talked to the director afterwards and she was telling me how challenging it was to do and how it was a battle with the administration to come up with a version she felt worked creatively but wasn’t going to ruffle too many feathers. It really mirrored what we’re doing in the show. This is in LA, in a very sophisticated community, a community where the arts is not foreign. And we’re definitely on broadcast television. [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt was supportive of this from the beginning, he’s very much a fan of theater and brings that into the work he does with NBC. But that said, there are still realities of being on NBC, and we couldn’t do everything that was in the show. So there was definitely a bit of a parallel between what the principal is saying to Lou and what Standards and Practices at NBC was saying to me. I’d get a note, and be like, “Oh, I can give that line to the principal.”
Tom, you were very much around Broadway when the initial frenzy around Spring Awakening happened. Did you have a close-up view of the making of the show at all? And does this feel like vicariously getting to be a part of it?
Kitt: This is such an important musical for me. Next to Normal had been in development since 1998, but we were on Broadway the following season [after Spring Awakening opened]. When I first saw it, we were in a workshop with a couple of the actors while they were in Spring Awakening. I remember seeing material talking about the human experience, with a rock-infused score, and also such beautiful string writing, all these colors in the score that are so heartbreaking and beautiful. It really galvanized me in terms of the story I was telling. And that there was an audience that wanted to see shows that spoke to the human experience in that way, and obviously had a buoyancy and positive visceral energy but also darkness and difficult emotions as well? It was very formative for me. And now that I get to come back to it, teaching the music and working with the actors, telling everyone involved how much I loved getting into this material, it’s been great.
On a weekly basis, what kind of work are you doing with the Rise cast?
Kitt: Every week we’d have a music meeting, breaking down all the music moments, what the potential instrumentation is, what is the world of the musical moment. The first four episodes, it’s rehearsal and auditions, it’s all just piano-based. In episode 5, as you’ll see, we start to incorporate the band. And then I’d go about arranging all the music, sometimes just going into the Spring Awakening music as it exists, figuring out what the cut is going to be, if the instrumentation will be the same, and then like any musical, getting the cast in rehearsal, getting them into the studio to record it, but also shooting it live and having them perform onstage in the moment. I think some of the most exciting moments in the season are live moments.
Jason found all these other wonderful musical moments, too — for example in the pilot, Michael is singing an a capella arrangement of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” and that does even more to underscore a scene.
These kids all have great voices, but they don’t sound overly professional, and we haven’t seen any slickly-done musical numbers onstage yet. Were you hoping to have a more rough around the edges feel in that sense?
Katims: That was absolutely intentional. It was really important to me that we felt like we were watching a high school production — that we’re seeing what really happens, which is people learning, figuring stuff out. They don’t come in at the level of honestly where this cast is. Some of them have been on Broadway, Auli’i had just sung on the Oscars [for Moana] when we did the first rehearsal. They are amazingly talented young performers, and we wanted to be entertaining, but we wanted to find these moments when the characters are struggling. Even though we prerecorded almost all the rehearsal and performance scenes, we leaned into the live performances, because we wanted moments that felt raw and authentic. The idea of the show wasn’t ever supposed to be like, a musical where people suddenly break into song. There were moments where it almost became comedic, trying to get these incredibly talented actors to be not quite as good as they are.
The teacher whose work inspired Rise, Lou Volpe, was known for doing the first high-school production of Les Misérables along with shows like Rent. Do you see the other groundbreaking shows he did as possible focuses of seasons to come?
Katims: First we have to get picked up for a future season! If we’re lucky enough to get one, rather than say, ‘Oh they did that at Lou’s school,’ I would really want to start with what’s going on with our characters. The more those two worlds resonate with each other, the more powerful it will be. I’d definitely want to not repeat what we did in season 1 but in a different way find a show that will resonate. There are lots of big picture questions about what that show will be; it could be another provocative show, or it could be Lou having to do a show that wasn’t his first choice, but he finds a way to make it personal.
Like The Pirates of Penzance? It is not a horrible show, and after its treatment in episode 1 I think it needs some redemption!
Katims: [Laughs] I feel very guilty about that. And Grease for that matter! But now they burned all those costumes.