The new NBC series Rise is based on the book Drama High, Michael Sokolove’s account of the nationally respected theater program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. As Rise creator Jason Katims recently explained, he used the book as “a jumping-off point” to tell a different story about the drama department at the fictional Stanton High School in fictional Stanton, Pennsylvania, a small town not dissimilar from Levittown. So, how much does the show dovetail with the book and how much does it diverge from Sokolove’s story? Let’s break it down.
The Theater Programs
Drama High focuses on the history of the theater department at Truman High under the supervision of its director, Lou Volpe, who spent 44 years shaping young actors and artists before retiring in 2013. Sokolove focuses in particular on the staging of two productions: the play Good Boys and True and the musical Spring Awakening, the latter of which provides the basis for Rise.
At this point, Truman High has established itself as a successful, prominent theater program, one that has been used as a testing ground for high-school versions of Les Misérables and Rent. (Truman was the first high school to ever stage Jonathan Larson’s “Seasons of Love.”) Stanton High is nowhere near that level yet. It’s unclear whether Josh Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli — the TV show’s version of Lou Volpe — will lead his program to those kinds of heights. But Mr. Mazzu’s insistence on doing Spring Awakening taps into the same sense of ambition and willingness to tackle controversial material that was central to Volpe’s approach at Truman. Like Truman, Stanton also has to do the best they can with a limited budget.
In Drama High, Sokolove makes it clear that Levittown is an economically depressed area. It’s not uncommon for teens to have part-time jobs or to have to pull their weight in terms of work and responsibilities at home. In Stanton, Katims created a very similar setting. The names of the places may be different, but the environments are practically identical.
Mr. Mazzu and Mr. Volpe
Let’s talk about Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), whose experiences are very different from the real man who inspired him, Lou Volpe.
For starters, in the first episode of Rise, Lou — or Mr. Mazzu — decides to apply to be the drama director even though he has no experience directing plays. Thanks to the principal’s impulsive decision to just give him the job, he essentially steals it from Tracey (Rosie Perez), the woman who ultimately agrees to be his assistant director.
That’s not quite how things went for the real Lou. Like Mr. Mazzu, Volpe didn’t have experience staging productions. Early into his job as an English teacher, the book explains, he sat in on a rehearsal for Camelot and asked the woman directing if he could help. By the end of that school year, that woman, then the head of the drama department, retired, prompting Volpe to apply to be the assistant drama director, a position that had been vacant for many years. Instead, the school put him in charge of the whole shebang. So TV Lou, like the real Lou, has a lot of learning to do after landing a role he wasn’t entirely qualified to take. But unlike TV Lou, the real Lou didn’t push anyone else out of the way to do it.
As for the men themselves, the fact that Volpe is gay but Mazzuchelli is not has led to accusations of straightwashing, with some critics questioning Katim’s decision to write the main character as a hetereosexual man with a wife and three kids. But because Volpe’s life is complicated, the reasons behind that change are more complicated than they might initially seem.
Volpe lived a large portion of his life as a closeted straight man. He married a woman, had a son with her, and remained a faithful husband and father until he came out in his 40s and got divorced. In the book, Sokolove first drops this bombshell on page 46: “Lou Volpe was, as well, gay, which he knew on the day he was married and, in fact, sensed long before he could give what he was feeling a name.” He doesn’t revisit the issue until roughly 150 pages later, in a chapter in which Volpe talks about coming out, and both his ex-wife and his son speak about their relationship with him. The book certainly addresses Volpe’s orientation and how being closeted affected his life, but it’s not as central to the narrative as his relationships with the students in his theater. Rise mirrors the book’s approach in that way.
The book also notes that Volpe was born in 1948, and grew up in a generation in which being openly gay carried a greater stigma. As Katims told the New York Times, trying to take those circumstances and filter them through the story of a closeted 40-something man living in 2018 seemed like it would rely on “clichés that didn’t feel quite honest for what was our experience today.”
Instead, Rise addresses some of the issues raised by Volpe’s experience, as well as the experiences of some gay and straight students in the book, with story lines that revolve around Simon (Ted Sutherland), the closeted gay son of conservative parents who gets cast as Hänschen, a Spring Awakening character who falls in love with another boy. (The other LGBTQ story line in Rise, about the transgender student Michael, played by Ellie Desautels, was completely invented for the show.)
“If I were doing a movie of that book,” Katims told me in a recent interview, “my approach would be completely different and I would very much tell a more biographical account of Lou’s life. You know, maybe one day there will be a movie of that story. But I didn’t feel like that was my job as a creator [of a TV show].”
Now, could Katims have made Lou a gay family man with three kids? Of course, and that would have been refreshing to see. But because Lou Volpe lived on the surface as a straight man for many years, particularly in his early days as drama director when Sokolove himself was one of his students, doing so would also have counted as a different kind of departure from the way Volpe lived his life. Ultimately, Katims took the liberty of leaving the closeted element out of Lou’s story line and incorporated it into another. Whether you agree with that decision or not, it’s at least easier to understand how it came about after reading Drama High.
Ms. Wolfe and Ms. Krause
The demoted assistant director played by Rosie Perez shares a first name with Tracey Krause, Volpe’s former student and assistant director. But unlike Rise’s Wolfe, Krause started out as the young assistant to Volpe, rather than the veteran who gets demoted, and says in the book that she hopes to learn from him so she can take over the department after he retires. (When Volpe finally did retire, that’s exactly what happened.)
Perez’s character inherited some of Krause’s salty-tongued spirit, but also the deep institutional memory and theater knowledge that someone like Volpe would have after 20 years of directing productions. In a way, she’s a hybrid of the two , which may explain why it seems like she’d be a much better director than Mr. Mazzu.
Just as Lou and Tracey are not exact duplicates for the real Lou and Tracey, the individual teens on Rise are not one-for-one recreations of specific kids in Drama High. But the circumstances they have to deal with are clearly inspired by the book. Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho), the inexperienced star of Spring Awakening whose mother’s reputation causes her some embarrassment, is a tiny bit similar to Carol Ann Vaserberg, a soft-spoken junior who has never tried out for a play and crushes it at her Spring Awakening audition. (“If any of you know my family, please don’t hold it against me,” she says before she begins singing.)
Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), the quarterback splitting his time between football and musical theater, is emblematic of the many athletes Sokolove describes in the book who wind up participating in drama. His closest analog might be Georjenna, a talented field-hockey captain who has to choose between playing her sport or starring in the show. She chooses the show and lands the part of Wendla.
Like the kids on Rise, the ones in Drama High all have issues they’re dealing with: parents who are conservative and uncomfortable with the material in the shows they’re performing, problems with boyfriends or girlfriends, struggles with money. Their overall experiences are being reflected in Rise, even if the specific details of their individual stories don’t all wind up on onscreen.