Teenagers who love the theater have never been more fully, widely represented by popular culture than they are right now.
During the past six months alone, Hollywood has put more drama-club kids onscreen than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, two especially fertile decades for teen movies and TV shows. At least it feels that way.
Since November, we’ve seen Lady Bird and her friends mounting a production of Merrily We Roll Along in Lady Bird; Via, the sister of Auggie in the movie Wonder, based on R.J. Palacio’s still wildly popular YA novel, shine bright in a production of Our Town; the entire cast of Rise focus on bringing Spring Awakening to life; young Michael Patel on NBC’s Champions embrace life as a New Yorker at a performing arts school; the high-school students in Love, Simon tackling Cabaret; a posse of theater bullies connect with members of the A/V Club in Netflix’s recently cancelled teen series Everything Sucks!; and, as of last night’s episode of Riverdale, watched practically all the stars of the CW’s premier teen soap, who are prone to engage in live performance, put on a particularly disturbing version of Carrie: The Musical. If I may borrow a line from a John Hughes film to describe this phenomenon: You couldn’t ignore theater kids if you tried, and that fact reflects a shift in the cultural portrayal of young people obsessed with putting on shows.
Certainly there have been previous teen-centric movies and TV shows that focused on the performing arts, with Fame, both the 1980 movie and the subsequent TV drama, serving as the most prominent example. But many of the more seminal high-school works in previous decades – Fast Times at Ridgemont High, all the Hughes movies, Clueless, Dazed and Confused, Beverly Hills 90210, My So-Called Life, 10 Things I Hate About You — were much more about interpersonal relationships than deep engagement with specific interests or school activities. When Grace, the school receptionist in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, runs down the list of student types — “sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads” — not once does she mention theater kids. The established cliques in Mean Girls don’t include a theater crowd either, which is ironic since members of that crowd are currently lining up to see Mean Girls on Broadway.
Aside from Fame, some TV shows did slip in a theater-focused episode now and again: on The Wonder Years, Winnie Cooper played Emily in Our Town. Rayanne Graff did it, too, on My So-Called Life. There was, hi and duh, a rather famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that wasn’t about rehearsals and opening night as much as a demon that compelled the characters to sing. Still: It counts as a work of a high-school TV theater.
In general, though, when an extracurricular served as the focal point in a movie or series, that activity was usually an athletic endeavor, like football (All the Right Moves, Varsity Blues), basketball (Hoop Dreams, many episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) or cheerleading (Bring It On, although they are enough jazz-hand references in that movie to make it a legit theater-kid footnote). The most consistent onscreen joke about teens who did theater was that they were melodramatic nerdy outcasts, the sort of people who compensated for their social awkwardness by memorizing Les Misérables in its entirety.
The 2003 indie film Camp, which certainly has its charms, played into some of those stereotypes, emphasizing the notion that theater kids were a niche group unto themselves. The quirky young playwrights and directors that popped up in Wes Anderson films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums definitely qualified as your classic, weird theater kids. The band campers in American Pie, who may not have officially been theater kids, but, as students of music, fall within the same subspecies, were also portrayed as hard-core nerds. (On the other hand, they engaged in some pretty adventurous sexual activities involving flutes. So they upended nerd typecasting in at least one way.)
Then a couple of big things in the late aughts happened to subvert those stereotypes. The first was High School Musical, the Disney Channel movie that starred Vanessa Hudgens and a pre-swole Zac Efron and spawned two sequels. As fluffy as that trilogy was, it established the notion for a whole generation of young kids — many of whom will graduate from high school this year — that jocks could be as interested in and successful at musical theater as your prototypical diva with a name like Sharpay.
The second thing that happened, was, of course Glee, which was technically about show choir, but whatever: The members of the New Directions and the Warblers were theater kids, through and through. Ryan Murphy’s Fox series leaned very hard into the trope about musical theater lovers as a bunch of misfit toys. But, to a greater extent than High School Musical, it also created a world in which a wide variety of students — football players, cheerleaders, the straight, the gay, the trans, the disabled, the goth, the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the Asian-American — all could find a sense of belonging in the act of standing up and singing out loud.
In its best years, Glee succeeded because it honored the sense of community that comes from being part of a theater group, while also arguing that literally anyone is welcome in that community. Theater isn’t a clique, the show told us: It’s a safe harbor and a home. This is also, at least from my point of view, a more accurate reflection of what theater is actually like in many high schools: a place where a mix of personalities band together out of love for acting, set design, and goofing off backstage when you’re supposed to be in position, rehearsing “Too Darn Hot” for the 19th time.
That ethos has become the default position for the way that film and television portrays high-school theater now. While there may be some quote-unquote geeks in some of the more recent high-school theater movies and shows I initially cited, the theater kids in today’s pop culture are much more nuanced. Rise makes a point of noting that there’s a place in Spring Awakening for those who have never auditioned for anything in their lives. No one in that show is running around flamboyantly quoting Stephen Sondheim all the time, either. Which is not to say that some theater kids don’t do that: some do! But Rise makes a point of showing that drama club attracts all kinds.
On the same network, Champions portrays Michael (J.J. Totah) as exactly the kind of flamboyant kid who runs around quoting Sondheim all the time. But he’s also a departure from the norm — he embraces the fact that he’s part Indian — and while he sometimes struggles socially, is completely confident in who he is. He’s the kind of kid a lot of other kids wish they could be. To take that concept to an even greater extreme, in Everything Sucks!, it’s the theater kids who are the most admired and feared in the school, the equivalent of the popular snobs that ran roughshod through the high school hallways in ’80s movies.
Other pop-cultural young adult touchstones from this decade, like Raina Telgemeier’s wonderful graphic novel Drama, also make theater seem like the coolest, most rewarding after-school activity that exists. Given some of their habits, it’s not hard to see why actual young people so easily buy into that idea. Today’s preteens and teens are growing up listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, “performing” for their friends on YouTube and musical.ly, and planning promposals that rival some Broadway musical numbers. On a certain level, everybody’s a theater kid now. Our Lady Birds, Love, Simons, Rises, Champions, and very special episodes of Riverdale are simply reflecting that.