High school musicals take center stage at Baltimore County schools

Last April, the four teachers who run Catonsville High School's annual production huddled.

The school's performances of "Hairspray" in February exceeded expectations, drawing standing-room-only crowds, said the group's director, Lauren Gill.

"We had to turn people away because it was becoming a fire hazard," said Gill, who teaches English and theater. The school's auditorium holds 924 people.

The teachers had a question to answer, as they tried to build off the musical's success: Now what?

Like other theater advisers in Baltimore County schools, they had several factors to consider in selecting this year's show: What will attract an audience and generate revenue? What's the makeup of the student talent? What's appropriate for high school students? Are too many other schools doing the same show?

"We felt a tremendous amount of pressure," Gill said.

For high schools in Catonsville and Arbutus, the crunch time for the annual high school musical has arrived. Lines have been learned, scenes have been staged, scores have been studied and now is the time to put it all together, as rehearsals become more frequent — as often as daily — leading up to opening night.

For students, the school musical is another after-school commitment to balance, along with jobs, sports and other extracurricular activities, but it's one they say is worthwhile.

"I think it's just a creative outlet for people to express themselves," said Richard James, a sophomore at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville who will have different roles in the school's production. "People don't really express themselves. In classrooms, the rules are still a bit strict, but here you can express yourself however you'd want."

"I believe that theater is the greatest form of expression," said Sky Betz, a senior at Catonsville High School and actor. "It's the greatest way to represent the human experience."

An estimated 50 million people attend one of the 37,000 school theater performances presented each year across the country, according to the trade publication American Theatre, which examines data from licensing houses.

"You don't think about it, but most people — if they're going to see a musical — it's a lot more likely they'll see it in a school environment than a professional environment," said Julie Cohen Theobald, executive director of Educational Theatre Association, a Cincinnati-based theater advocacy group.

She said that's the case because of its accessibility — the fact that they take place in schools and students are inviting parents and the community to watch.

"It becomes more of an everyday thing," she said.

The nonprofit, in partnership with Utah State University, sponsored a survey of theater education programs in high schools in 2012. In it, 98 percent of school administrators believe that the programs strengthen student's critical thinking, collaboration, communication and leadership skills.

At Catonsville High School, brainstorming for this year's musical started last April, and the selection was made at the start of the school year.

The group chose the Broadway version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," a 2013 adaptation of the popular fairy tale. The two-act play tells the story of a woman, poorly treated by her stepsisters, who transforms into elegance, with the help of her Fairy Godmother, to be able to attend a ball to meet her prince.

Auditions took place just before Thanksgiving and rehearsals started when students returned from the holiday break.

Fifty-three students will be on stage and 20 are in the orchestra pit, Gill said. Another 50 are involved in stage crew for the musical, which includes handling sets, lights and sound, and the annual fall drama with various levels of involvement.

Lansdowne High School's theater group also chose "Cinderella," after students saw a November performance at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore.

Kelsey Morsberger, an English and theater teacher and the play's director at the school, said it's important to choose a musical that students are familiar with so they can engage with the script and music right away.

"The kids loved the show," she said, adding students began thinking who could play what roles. "As soon as they left the Hippodrome they were intrigued by the story."

About 35 students are involved in the production and another 10 in the pit, she said.

Among them was Imani Jackson, a senior who plans to major in theater and mass communication at McDaniel College in Westminster, in the fall, with the hopes of becoming an actress. She is playing Gabrielle, "the good stepsister" in the show and said theater helps students become more outgoing.

"In high school we're all so scared of what we might be or what people think of us, but now you've become a whole different character and you pick a different persona," she said. "It kind of brings out more of who you are in your own character."

Morsberger said she originally wanted to perform "Beauty and the Beast," but the rights — permission from the production's publishing company to perform the show — were unavailable.

Gill said her school also considered the show, but too many schools were doing it.

At Western Tech, theater director Rob Zienta, who is also the school's librarian, considers shows that support the school's English curriculum. He often writes his own adaptations of shows and plays as a way to save money.

This year, the school is presenting "A Night of Comedy," headlined by an adaptation Zienta made of Mark Twain's "The Diaries of Adam and Eve," along with about a dozen short sketches written by Zienta and the students. Zienta described the play as a humorous look at the Old Testament tale of Adam and Eve.

About 15 students are involved in the production, he said.

Ayiri Hesse, a sophomore, is doing a school play for the first time, as she tries to conquer stage fright.

"If you can do it in front of all these people then of course you can do it in front of a crowd full of people," she said.

The cost for staging plays vary. According to the Educational Theatre Association survey, high schools, on average, spent $7,500 to produce a musical and $2,700 to produce a nonmusical play during the 2011-12 school year.

At Lansdowne, about $350 was spent on the rights to perform the show and $575 went for rentals for scripts and sheet music, Morsberger said, adding the theater group typically spends about $500 on costumes and set materials. Lansdowne has a budget of about $3,000 for the school musical, with about $1,000 spent so far, Morsberger said.

At Catonsville High School, about $3,000 was spent on getting the rights, scripts and music parts, Gill said, adding that about $1,000 has been spent on materials.

Money raised for Catonsville's productions go back into the program, Gill said, whether it be to obtain rights and materials for future shows or to maintain or upgrade the school's auditorium. Hairspray made between $6,000 and $8,000 in profit, Gill said.

An upgraded sound system with new speakers and lavaliere microphones will be in place by the fall.

At Western Tech, money raised from the shows also goes back into the theater program. Zienta said the curtains for the school's stage, in the school's music room, were purchased using funds from box office sales.

What's off limits?

The one show all three directors interviewed for this story mentioned was "Rent," a musical about a group of New York City artists living during the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s.

"You have to know your community and what people want to see," Gill said. "We want families to come."

Zienta, who said "Rent" is not appropriate for a high school audience, said he has read an adaptation of the show for high school students, but he wouldn't consider running it.

"If you have to change the story dramatically to make it acceptable, it doesn't work," he said.

Morsberger said she tends to stick with fairy tales or more wholesome plays, to avoid parental disputes. Freshmen involved with the show can be as young as 14, she said.

"We try to keep it as PG," she said. "PG-13, at best."

SHOW TIMES

Catonsville High School's "Cinderella"

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24, 25

Where: Catonsville High School, 421 Bloomsbury Avenue, Catonsville.

Cost: $10 in advance, $12 at the door

Call: 410-887-0808

Lansdowne High School's "Cinderella"

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24, 25

Where: Lansdowne High School, 3800 Hollins Ferry Road, Lansdowne

Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for students with ID, free for children under 7

Call: 410-887-1415

Western Tech's "A Night of Comedy"

When: 7 p.m. March 31 and April 1

Where: Western Tech, 100 Kenwood Ave, Catonsville

Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for students

Call: 410-887-0840

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