(Christian) High School Musical

Special Features   (Christian) High School Musical "Juno" meets Jesus in a manner of speaking in Saved, the musical currently world-premiering at Playwrights Horizons.
(Clockwise from top): Saved creators John Dempsey, Michael Friedman and Rinne Groff.
(Clockwise from top): Saved creators John Dempsey, Michael Friedman and Rinne Groff. Photo by Joan Marcus

If ever there was a sister-under-the-maternity-blouse to that hard young cookie in Diablo Cody's original (very!), Oscar-winning Juno, it's our Mary here — another knowing (to-the-point-of-knocked-up) teen whose misstep is magnified because she goes to a Bible-thumping high school. The horror!

No immaculate conception here, but it was terribly well-intended: Mary was saving her boyfriend Dean from the gay life. But the resulting fix doesn't sit well with their fundamentalist classmates, who — saved in the soul-saving Christian sense of the word — start heaping pious scorn on the couple. Dean is, in fact, dragged off to a "degayification" center for straightening. When Mary opts to not avail herself of the services of the abortion clinic she marched against, the preacher's son saves her rep.

That's a whole lot of saving going on, choreographed by Jersey Boys' Sergio Trujillo and directed by The Color Purple's Gary Griffin. The music is by Gone Missing's Michael Friedman, the book by The Witches of Eastwick's John Dempsey and The Ruby Sunrise's Rinne Groff, and all three of these creators had a hand in the lyrics.

Saved the musical sprouted from "Saved!" the movie, which outrageously marked writer–director Brian Dannelly's screen bow. In fact, one of the producers of that 2004 flick, Sandy Stern, suggested its musical afterlife to Dempsey, who pounced.

"It's a difficult idea, given the subject matter," the adapter allows. "Audiences bring to the theatre very personal feelings about it — both pro and con — but the story itself is a great idea. And there's a lot of music inherent in the situation — in that lifestyle." Musicalizing the material made curious sense to Dempsey. "High school musicals are great in general because teenagers' lives are so over-the-top, so operatic — all their little passions, whether it's boys or pimples — but, if it's something big and serious like sex or matters of faith, it's nice to have songs about that. When you wear your emotions on your sleeve as they do, I find that to be a compelling thing, musically."

Groff agrees: "What John says about high school is right on the money, but I was also interested in this world that I knew very little about, actually. As an artist in New York, it is very easy to exist in a bubble. Most people I know share my views about politics and religion. I liked that this material forced me to get outside that bubble.

"The other night Tim Sanford [Playwrights Horizons' artistic director] said this thing at dinner I thought so interesting: 'New York is the epicenter of secular humanism. That's sort of the religion of most of New York City.' It was fun for me to step outside that religion into evangelical Christianity, which is different from, and, in some ways at odds with, that. As an American artist, I was really interested in finding out more about a belief system that is shared by a large percentage of people in America."

The movie, which used Mandy Moore against type as a fire-and-brimstone-snorting zealot named Hilary Faye, landed softly in the marketplace but quietly acquired a cult following in video release. "It came out at a very rocky time," says Dempsey. "Reagan died, and they actually thought that blunted the impact it had at the box office, but it caught on with the DVD crowd and got great ratings on cable."

It would even play in red states, he feels. "I certainly don't think religious audiences will respond less," he says. "I have a niece and nephew who go to a Jesuit college in Ohio, and their whole class is obsessed with this movie, which is quite interesting. First of all, it's not set in a Jesuit sort of school, but they love the story, and they don't find it blasphemous. What satire there is in the movie, they find very gentle."

Also, Friedman points out, "people love watching themselves satirized. Satire is a kind of flattery. It says, 'You're worth satirizing. You're worth looking at.' Secular humanists eat that up with a spoon. There's a moment where Hilary Faye says, 'Jesus and I will forgive you,' and Mary says, 'Jesus and I? What are you, dating the man?' It always gets a big laugh. It's something Christians identify with because they can see what Hilary Faye is saying — misconstruing — is ridiculous within their faith."

The car chase and the underwater scene never made it off the screen, but the adapters were able to transpose the film's impish irreverence to the stage — in spirit if not in specifics. "Certainly, we had to find some language that would exist in a theatre, and it would be specifically musical," Groff admits. "The people on board here — Tim Sanford and the commercial producers involved — have been really great about asking us the right questions. 'Okay, you're not going to drive a van into a statue of Jesus — that's not going to happen on a Playwrights Horizons stage — so what is the essence of that, and how can we make that happen on stage that is just as impactful or impactful in a different way?'"

Their labors were not lost on the desired market. "So far, we've had lots of young people in the house," she notes. "At the first performance, a Playwrights person said, 'Who are these kids?' Somehow, they heard of the show, and they're there. We love that. It's great to look into the audience and see kids dressed like our kids on stage."

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Julia Murney in <i>Saved.</i>
Celia Keenan-Bolger and Julia Murney in Saved. Photo by Joan Marcus
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