NBC's new drama series Rise has its roots in real musical theater. The TV series premieres on Tuesday, March 13, and the show is executive produced by Jeffrey Seller, a producer of Broadway's Hamilton. The show takes place in an educational community that feels authentic, but is Stanton High School on Rise real?
According to The Los Angeles Times, the town of Stanton, Pennsylvania, is a fictional blue-collar community located in the rust belt, so the high school in the series is fictional as well. But Rise takes inspiration from a real institution. The drama is based on Michael Sokolove's 2013 book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, And The Magic of Theater, which is about Lou Volpe, a well-known theater director. For 44 years, Volpe taught at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. According to the book's description, Truman High School is also notable because Broadway let the theater program try out potentially controversial but famous shows (like Spring Awakening and Rent) before they would be performed by other high school theater programs across the country. According to WHYY, Volpe retired from Truman High in May 2013, but his legacy lives on in Rise.
The show adapts Volpes story as it follows English teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother) as he decides to become Stanton High School's new drama director — despite not knowing much about the stage. The character chooses Spring Awakening as the year's musical for his students, and the issues raised by the show concern the community. In an interview with Parade Magazine, Radnor described his character Lou, saying:
"He is sincere and idealistic. It doesn’t seem like he has been overtaken by cynicism. He still believes in teaching. He still believes in his students. He still believes you can inspire. But at the beginning of the show he is also in a bit of a rut and feels he needs something. He needs some new jolt of energy or inspiration and he loves theater."
At the start of Rise, it sounds like Stanton's theater program will have a long way to go in order to match Truman High's famous real program. In a Drama High excerpt published in the New York Times, Sokolove wrote that Truman High's 2001 production of Les Misérables was so acclaimed that it attracted Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who produced Broadway's Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Hamilton.
Rise also stars Moana's Auli'i Cravalho, Rosie Perez, Broadway actor Joe Trippett, Damon J. Gillespie, and Shirley Rumierk. The series was created by Jason Katims, who executive produced the acclaimed dramas Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, both renowned for their authenticity. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Katims said, “What I really wanted to do was examine this drama program within a community that was suffering in a lot of ways.”
Drama High described Levittown as a "struggling former steel town" and an "economically depressed but proud town finding hope in a gifted teacher and the magic of theater," both of which can describe Stanton as well. According to the LA Times, Rise makes references to Stanton's struggle with unemployment and opioid addiction, which is similar to issues that Levittown is facing. Tracey Krause is the current theater director at Truman High School and she explained the culture of that real Pennsylvania town to WHYY:
“Our children, our community, really has great coping skills. Unemployment, foreclosures, horrible drug addiction and drug dealing. Our kids come to us with such coping skills that other districts don’t have.
It’s part of what makes them so good in this drama program. It’s a sad thing, but it’s a beautiful thing.”
With its recreation, Rise will attempt to tell a story about how the arts can transform a community. After all, it's happened before.