How NBC's Rise Takes High School Drama Kids Seriously

Interview   How NBC's Rise Takes High School Drama Kids Seriously
 
The new series from Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims, starring Josh Radnor, puts the importance of theatre centerstage.

When NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller handed Jason Katims the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove, the creator of the Emmy-winning Friday Night Lights and Parenthood knew he had found his next television show.

The story of author and teacher Lou Volpe’s overhaul of his public school drama department and the power of theatre to change students’ lives captured Katims, who transformed the book into Rise, which premieres March 13 on NBC.

Read: HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER’S JOSH RADNOR ON THE NEW TV SERIES EVERY THEATRE FAN SHOULD WATCH

In Katims’ version, Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor of Broadway’s Disgraced and the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother) enacts a drastic shakeup when he casts kids outside the typical drama club roster and swaps Grease for the controversial Spring Awakening. Katims chose the Tony winner as Mazuchelli’s maiden musical because it mirrors his characters’ struggles of self-discovery. “It was about teenagers going through very, very difficult stuff,” says Katims, who dug into the material with the Best Musical’s Tony-winning librettist Steven Sater. “I felt like, ‘Oh, this will be very rich to explore for the first show that we do between our characters.’”

The underfunded drama program and its inexperienced leader’s fight to prioritize the arts—and the town backlash to that art—anchors the show, but the series’ strength is that it reaches far past the auditorium door. “I felt like Rise should ultimately be stories about families,” says Katims.

As his characters grapple with timely issues—identity, class disparity, sexuality and religion, healthcare, addiction—Katims crafts the ten-episode narrative in a way that doesn’t feel like a checklist of relevance, but an organic portrait of small town people and their reality.

This is what makes Rise unlike other musical television shows. Viewers will still hear songs like “Mama Who Bore Me”—performed by Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho—and “My Junk,” but Katims trades pristine production numbers for gritty rehearsal scenes and the personal conflicts that enrich them. “The show doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this is about a high school drama program where people are going to break into song,’” he says. “It felt like, ‘Oh, this is grounded in reality. This is a real place.’

“At the center of this is how important the arts are—how important it is for people who are in high school to be exposed to that. Putting my involvement aside,” Katims adds, “I’m so happy that this show is going to be out there.”

Read: NBC PLEDGES $500,000 THROUGH R.I.S.E. AMERICA TO PROMOTE THE ARTS IN HIGH SCHOOLS

Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.

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