How Accurate Is Lou In ‘Rise’? A Life-Changing Teacher’s Career Forms The Basis Of This Musical Drama
NBC's spring premiere Rise is the story of an inspirational theatre teacher who shows high school students how they can become great through art. Teacher Lou Mazzuchelli, played by Josh Radnor, brings together athletes, artists, and academics to challenge a working-class town's perception of what drama can be — and it's all based on a true story. However, while Rise is inspired by the story of a real high school teacher, the TV version of the legendary teacher isn't completely accurate.
According to LevittownNow.com, the character of Lou Mazzuchelli is inspired by Lou Volpe, whose storied career as a drama instructor at Harry S. Truman High School in suburban Pennsylvania that drew national acclaim. The New York Times featured the teacher in a profile that called his program "The Real-Life Glee." A book, by former student and writer of the Times piece Michael Sokolove, chronicled his experience and the rise of the program. And Drama High: The Incredible True Story Of A Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, And The Magic Of Theater formed the basis of the series adaptation.
Volpe started teaching when he was just 21, per The Times, and had no experience in theater. But despite his lack of experience, he began attending college courses and visiting theater programs across the country to bring that experience back to his students. Eventually, Volpe was trusted by major publishers to test out high school versions of notable, but edgy, musicals like Rent and Spring Awakening. He retired in 2013 after 44 years of teaching. The Bucks Country Courier Times reported that Volpe suffered a stroke a few months after his retirement, and is still recovering through physical therapy. Fortunately, he was well enough to meet with Katims and other producers and performers involved with Rise as the series was being developed.
However, the teacher's surname isn't the only thing that Rise changed when adapting the story for real life. For example, creators courted a great deal of controversy when it became known that Lou Mazzuchelli would be a straight, married father in the show.
Lou Volpe, the inspiration for the character, now lives openly as a gay man, as detailed in Drama High. According to a USA Today article on the book, Volpe came out to his wife 18 years into their marriage, though his orientation was something he had felt he'd long been aware of.
The Wrap reported that executive producer Jason Katims explained his decision to change Volpe's orientation to a crowd during a Television Critics Association press tour panel. "We took [the book] as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it my own story," Katims said. "With Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of re-imagination. Not just in terms of gay or straight, but in terms of the family structure."
Soon after, disappointed people took to Twitter to refute the idea that the identity of an inspirational real-life figure needed to be shifted so that the executive producer could "relate" to him.
Volpe himself spoke on the matter in an interview with The Advocate, saying, "For me, 'straight-washing' the character was never an issue, because he is not based on me. As an artist, I respect their vision for the show." The teacher also said that while he and Mazzuchelli share "dedication, passion, love of kids, and the realization that education is, especially in this day and age, important for success," that he and his character "are definitely fundamentally different."
Katims, along with fellow executive producers Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez, released a full statement on the matter to Entertainment Weekly and other publications. It reads:
"The misinterpretation by some of what we’ve done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals. We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see Rise, which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity."
Bustle has reached out to NBC for comment.
According to EW, the Writer's Guild Of America made the determination that Katims would have a "created by" rather than a "developed by" credit for the show, which speaks to how much the source material of the book has been changed. However, while the show does not claim to be a direct adaptation, the lead character still shares Volpe's first name and a similar role in the community.
Rise doesn't claim to be a completely faithful adaptation of Lou Volpe's life. If the show doesn't fully satisfy fans, they can dig more into the real history of the program by picking up a copy of Drama High.