Published On: Sun, Mar 11th, 2018

In TV’s Rise, the students and their teacher find meaning in a small-town high school musical

LOS ANGELES—Even if you’re trying to put the squeeze on a ballooning TV watch list, consider the pedigree of NBC’s Rise: It’s from the Friday Night Lights producer who created Parenthood and a producer of Broadway’s Hamilton.

With stars Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and Rosie Perez (Fearless) and a strong cast of young performers, including Auli’i Cravalho of Moana, the drama revolving around a small-town high school and its theatre program clearly deserves attention.

For Jason Katims, the chance to take a different approach to themes he explored as executive producer of Friday Night Lights drew him to Rise, debuting 10 p.m. Tuesday on Global. He was captivated by the “idea of being able to observe the people of this community and do it through this beautiful storytelling device of musical theatre,” said Katims, who’s collaborating with Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller.

Don’t be misled by “musical” and “high school.” The series, inspired by the life’s work of teacher Lou Volpe that was detailed in Michael Sokolove’s 2013 book Drama High, doesn’t pick up where Glee left off.

“If I felt like that was the show it was going to be I wouldn’t have done it, because Glee did that so beautifully,” Katims said. “We spend as much time, more time in fact, in their (the students’) homes and with their families and relationships … and the theatre becomes their home base in a way that’s driving the story.”

The youngsters face challenges that are both timeless and contemporary, including teen pregnancy and gender identity. Shades of Friday Night Lights, there’s even a football thread, with one student (Damon J. Gillespie) caught between his talents as an athlete and a performer. The adults face their own problems.

Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli, who finds himself in a rut teaching English and trying to cope with family tensions. Lou grabs a chance to take over his school’s theatre program despite scant experience in the field and the fact he’s leap-fogged a more experienced colleague, Perez’s Tracey Wolfe.

Radnor said he could relate a bit to Lou’s “early middle-age ennui” as well as the moments of panic he experiences in tackling something new and unfamiliar.

“You get really attacked by voices of doubt at 3 in the morning and that happens to him a couple times throughout the series,” the actor said.

But Lou’s passion is real: for theatre, for the students he wants to motivate and for his Pennsylvania town, which is struggling with hardship after a steel mill’s closure. He challenges the status quo and students by choosing to stage a provocative musical, Spring Awakening, instead of a more predictable, safe high school choice like Grease.

(There’s irony here: the ongoing network fascination with live musicals has itself skewed heavily toward comfortable fare including The Sound of Music and, yes, Grease, with Spring Awakening staged only within fiction.)

“The core of the story is this beautiful idea that Lou’s vision enables these students to see their lives in a different way and imagine … a different future for themselves than they might have had,” Katims said.

Seller underscored the importance of the arts in young people’s lives during a Q&A with reporters. He recalled visiting New York for the first time as a teenager and the “formidable experience” of seeing Jennifer Holliday perform the Dreamgirls showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Rise, he said, is a project that “represents everything I believe in, which is family, which is community and which is art, and that’s why I’m here today.”

The show was already in the works when the 2016 presidential election highlighted national divisions, Katims said, but its small-town, blue-collar focus makes the drama pertinent without being overtly political.

“We never have to say ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ or ‘Trump,’” he said. “Just putting the show out there in the world and observing this type of town that doesn’t get observed enough, without judging anybody, just letting their voice be heard, that is a political statement.”

He’s glad it’s a statement that’s on network TV, giving it the chance to reach more viewers than likely with a streaming service or cable channel. Although networks are slumping in the face of those competitors, they still routinely pull the most robust audiences, such as the 10-million plus who watch NBC’s This Is Us.

That’s to the benefit of Rise, which is riding the coattails of Tuesday’s 9 p.m. season finale of the sophomore hit before stepping into its time slot. As character-driven, non-genre shows they share a similar DNA, and Katims hopes that and the uplifting tone of Rise bode well for its future.

“The beauty of the story is that it is aspirational, it is hopeful,” he said.

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In TV’s Rise, the students and their teacher find meaning in a small-town high school musical