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The Play's The Thing — High School Productions Down The Decades

When my high school decided to do Guys and Dolls my Junior year, I was ecstatic. My folks had seen the show right after I was born and had the original cast album. I already knew all the songs by heart: "I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere ..."

How could Miss McMindes not cast me?

She did not cast me, but I was her top ticket salesman, as I had been the year before for The Music Man. So the first thing I checked in Dramatics magazine's yearly log was where Guys and Dolls ranked among high school musicals in 1965.

The magazine shared with us its annual lists dating back to 1938, and we've pulled together a searchable list of the most popular shows by decade. And for the radio story above, that sent me online searching for high school performances over the years — a rabbit hole down which I advise you to travel. There's amazing talent out there.

Anyway, it turns out that in 1965 Guys and Dolls was pretty far down the list. And the year before, The Music Man cracked the top five.

The Educational Theater Association, let's note, is only polling its member schools in the lists it prints in Dramatics. The organization had 500 members in 1938; it has close to 5,000 today. But that's out of 21,000 high schools in the U.S., so these rankings are hardly definitive.

They are consistent enough, though, to suggest some trends and truisms. And not just about musicals. Early on, there weren't many: Of a total of more than a thousand high school productions in 1939, the editors counted just 30 "operettas."

A smattering of Gilbert & Sullivan, I'm guessing. Who better, after all, to sing "Three Little Maids from School" than three little maids in school?

The editors complained in their early surveys that the plays being produced were "not on a par with the music played by school orchestras." In other words, the bandleader had his students playing Beethoven, while the drama teacher was mounting titles like Parents and Pigtails.

The editors suggested a solution: Do one classic, for every two popular plays — and then they complained for years that no one was following their advice. They did note, though, that "plays dealing with the problems of youth" tended to top the list — Life With Father, Little Women, Junior Miss, plus two that have stood the test of time: Our Town and You Can't Take It With You.

The latter has been one of the 10 most produced high school plays since the rights were made available to schools in 1939. And Our Town, Thornton Wilder's plain-spoken portrait of life in the fictional small American town of Grover's Corners, has only missed the top 10 in five years across all those decades.

Note that both shows have age-appropriate parts for high schoolers, and large casts, so plenty of kids can participate. And Our Town is designed to take place on an empty stage with no scenery. All you really need is a ladder.

By the early 1960s, musicals had more than crept into the mix, they were threatening in some years to take it over. Fully half of the top 20 shows in a few 1970s years were musicals.

Lots of Rodgers & Hammerstein ... almost always Guys and Dolls and The Music Man. And remember I mentioned age-appropriate parts? Well, Bye Bye Birdie, with its Elvis jokes and teen characters, leapt into the high school top 10 as soon as it closed on Broadway in 1961, and still hasn't left.

Interestingly, there's one show featuring teen characters that's never once cracked the top 10: 'West Side Story.' Probably that's because the show also has ethnic tensions, premarital sex, and gang warfare, which provide maybe too many teachable moments.

In more recent decades, Birdie's squeaky-clean teens have been joined by the comparatively raunchy high schoolers in Grease (the school version edits out a pregnancy, and a lot of dicey language). And more recently, the slicked-back '50s ducktail haircuts in Grease have been joined by the '60s beehives in Hairspray.

Interestingly, there's one show featuring teen characters that's never once cracked the top 10: West Side Story. Probably that's because the show also has ethnic tensions, premarital sex and gang warfare, which provide maybe too many teachable moments. Also, to do West Side Story, you need a lot of that rarest of high school creatures: boys who can dance ballet. And Leonard Bernstein's music is tough.

It's worth noting that the top 10 shows of any year are by nature going to be conservative choices — shows that work for drama teachers: lots of mid-sized parts, no big starring role that'll have to carry the whole show. There aren't enough adolescent Streisands out there for there to be three dozen Funny Girls nationally in one year.

When a budding Streisand does come along — Heather Headley at Northrup High in Fort Wayne, Ind., for instance — she'll sound like a star-in-the-making. In this case she was. A few years after singing the hell out of "People," while playing Fanny Brice in high school, she was among the luckiest people in the world, originating the role of Nala in The Lion King on Broadway. And a few more years after that she won a Tony Award playing the title role in Elton John's Aida.

What the top 10 or even top 20 shows don't reveal is the breadth of what gets produced by high schools these days. When the magazine's editors do a deep dive into statistics, they'll note things like the fact that in a given year, besides the 10 most popular musicals, there are another 140 titles that get at least a couple of productions each, not to mention more than 1,000 different plays.

It's safe to say that every year, somewhere in a high school gymnasium, a 17-year-old boy is waxing dramatic in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and high school girls are playing prostitutes in Miss Saigon.

Would this please those original editors? The ones who argued for more seriousness in high school shows?

Hard to say, but they'd certainly applaud the fact that in recent decades some Shakespeare has crept into the mix, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and on the musical side, a bit of Stephen Sondheim.

His Into the Woods is offered for schools in a special school edition that concentrates almost entirely on the first act, where characters are all trying to get to happily-ever-after, omitting the darker second act that looks at what happens after happily-ever-after.

In terms of pure popularity, though, Sondheim's brand of fairy-tales-ironic can't "hold a candle" (as Lumiere might say) to Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which closed on Broadway in 2007, and for the next six years, was the No. 1 most-produced musical in high schools across the country.

From Crescenta Valley Highin La Crescenta, Calif., to Greenville High in Pennsylvania, and Twin Lakes High in Monticello, Ind., and Dutchtown High in Geismar, La., and on and on ... a nationwide chorus of high schoolers, singing to the rafters about a girl who's into books, who loves a guy who built a library.

Those original Dramatics editors would surely be proud.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.