From the perspective of its creators, NBC’s new drama Rise is the inspiring story of an English teacher who ends up in charge of a high-school musical and decides to stage Spring Awakening, leading his students to all sorts of emotional realizations along the way. From the perspective of a very confused person watching Rise, it looks like the story of a random white guy who seizes control of a high-school musical, decides to stage Spring Awakening, and makes many baffling directorial decisions. But perhaps most baffling is this: The fictional Stanton High already had a drama teacher named Tracey Wolfe running the musical, and she is played by Rosie Perez.
Why isn’t Miss Wolfe in charge, or at least the hero of the show? She has the experience, she was wrongfully shoved aside when Josh Radnor’s Mr. Lou Mazzuchelli took over, and we demand that she get her time in the spotlight. (Or directing the people in the spotlight. Anyway, you get the point.)
First, let’s talk about why Lou comes off as so annoying in the first two episodes. In the grand uplifting tapestry of teen angst and occasional Hamilton quotes that is Rise, the supposedly inspiring teacher is Radnor’s Mr. Mazzu. Lou is a family man who loves his wife, his kids, and most of all, Spring Awakening. The real person whom Radnor’s character is based on, Lou Volpe, indeed staged Spring Awakening and other daring musicals, as documented in the book Drama High. He isn’t straight like Radnor’s character, but a gay man who came out later in life. When Rise takes aspects of Volpe out of context and rescrambles them into Mr. Mazzu, the result feels jarring. Why is this guy of all people interested in daring theater? All Rise tells us (so far, anyway) is that he knows a few lines of Hamilton and believes he has a vision, traits he shares with every man who has a liberal arts degree.
When Radnor marches into rehearsals for the high-school musical, Rise wants us to believe he’s upending the system, but it’s hard to track how or why that seems to be the case. He casts the shy Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho) and football star Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) as the leads, which is cool, but feels like a decision made by someone play-acting inspiration rather than feeling it. This happens again when Lou casts Simon (Ted Sutherland), a closeted gay kid, as the gay character Hänschen, because he believes “it is your role, and you are going to be amazing.” (It feels like he’s saying, “I’ve decided it’s time for you to figure things out, kid.”) Added to all this, there’s the fact that most of what Lou proposes is expensive — far too expensive for the struggling school’s theater program to accommodate. He even insists the musical’s set include replica of the town’s smokestack, which has to be cylindrical because a square smokestack simply will not do!
Who could possibly run the show instead of Mr. Mazzu? Well, we’re told that Rosie Perez’s Miss Wolfe has worked in the school’s drama program for over a decade. A former Stanton High student herself, Miss Wolfe is tough-as-nails and effective at squeezing the most out of the drama department’s thin budget. (At one point she explains how she bartered for most of her props.) Competence, however, isn’t enough in the world of Rise, and the show routinely implies that Lou deserves to be the more central character because he has a vision.
To be fair, the pilot episode does include the fact that Stanton High will pay Lou less than Tracey — and is thus really just saving money by putting him in charge — but Rise doesn’t linger on the idea that Lou is undeserving, instead spending most its first season ratifying his genius as all his weird choices end up paying off for the kids. Maybe Tracey’s ideas wouldn’t work, but we never get the chance to see her test them. Instead, she gets stuck being the scold, which is disappointing given how much more qualified her character seems compared to the inexperienced white man in charge. (It’s doubly disappointing because, again, it’s Rosie Perez.)
When Lou arrives in the pilot, the kids are rehearsing Grease, and he later complains that the school staged it three times in the last decade. But Grease is a fine musical, and Tracey promises, “I planned to put my spin on it!” Later, when Lou is briefly booted, she starts up again on The Pirates of Penzance, which is also a fine show! But no, Lou has to come back and save the day and Tracey has to stand back while they burn all her stuff. It takes a lot to manage two musicals. Tracey has ideas! It would be great to see them, if Rise ever gives us the chance.