Documentary Highlights Musical Theater at Six NJ High Schools

Each year, the capper for rising stars of high school musicals are the Tonys of New Jersey high school musical theater: the Rising Star Awards. But first, they have to get their shows off the ground. Tomorrow on NJTV, the premier of a documentary that chronicles six very different high schools from across the state as they rehearse, perform and compete with the very same supercalifragilistic show. “I Can’t … I Have Rehearsal!” airs tomorrow but is getting a preview screening tonight at Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway with the director, Maddie Orton. She spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the documentary.

Williams: How did you come up with the concept of following these six schools?

Orton: Well, you know, we learned this year the Rising Star Awards, which as you mentioned are basically the Tony Awards for New Jersey high school musical theater. There were six schools that were all doing “Mary Poppins,” which  happens a lot when a school is able to get the rights for a relatively new show that just came off Broadway. And so we thought this was an interesting opportunity an arts education apples to apples comparison, not so much of the productions themselves but more about what goes into these programs that makes them special. You know, some of these schools have a lot of parental support. Some of these schools have arts education classes and dance, music, theater and visual arts. And some just have a lot of support from the district. So what we thought was this would be a nice way to showcase how these districts really shine in their own special way and also what makes them very similar.

Williams: Do these students have equal access to arts education?

Orton: They don’t. And that was one of the interesting things that we found when we did this. Through the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership and the Department of Education. We found that there is the student learning standard requirement for New Jersey that high schoolers have access to classes in dance, music, theater and visual arts for credit and a grade through the school. But in fact most of the high schools in New Jersey don’t offer classes in all four of these disciplines for credit and a grade. What was interesting about this though is that you might think that the more affluent districts would automatically have access to these and the districts with less funds might not. But in fact, what was really fascinating is that many of the districts that might not have as many funds maybe had strong district pushing for this or strong parental pushing.

Williams: How important is the backing of principals and the involvement of parents?

Orton: Oh it’s huge. I mean, it shows where there’s a will there’s a way

Williams: You were a theater kid yourself in high school. What was it like going back to school?

Orton: I was. It was amazing. Theater’s changed a lot but it’s the same. It’s the same precocious kids. You know, theater kids are more apt to do better on their SATs, they’re more civically engaged and these students were so poised and confident and they had so much heart. And to be in their rehearsal room, in their second home, was such a treat.

I Can’t … I Have Rehearsal” premieres Wednesday, May 17 at 8 p.m. on NJTV.