Bombay Showcase

High-school musicals

In a school production, even bit parts are populated by youngsters with great character—Photo: Special arrangement  

Last week, while unwinding in salubrious Mussoorie, I had the privilege to attend a couple of classes at the Woodstock School, where my friend, Curran Russell, works as a drama instructor. His classroom has its own proscenium stage, and there are long chapel-style teak windows on either side that open out into the sunlight.

His students, who call him ‘Mr Russell’, had devised some theatrical set-pieces that I was happy to watch, and provide feedback for. The germ of the idea could have an artefact provided to them. For example, a photograph of a forlorn Italian boy became an Orwellian epic, along the lines of 1984 , in which a happy-go-lucky rebel in an oppressive environment met a particularly macabre end, with several laughs to be had along the way. Then, there was a meditation on bullying, teen suicides and mass-shootings in schools. One group presented a psychological drama in which a mother is kidnapped by a deranged kid. Later that evening, some of his students would also feature in the school’s annual musical production, co-directed by Russell and his colleague Bethany Okie.

The musical was In the Heights , a Tony Award-winning production from librettist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, from the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Set in a delectably Latino-flavoured Dominican-American neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York City, it is a sprawling ensemble piece based on events that occur over the course of three days. Even as professional productions opened across the world, including a West End version last year, several school stagings have overseen its making over as a high-octane, high school musical. This is perhaps because its themes of multi-culturalism and assimilation, minus the partisan politics of, say, West Side Story , present a potent opportunity to both entertain and edify school-goers who would either be in the cast or in the audience. The material is somewhat simplistic and by-the-numbers, which helps to make it accessible to most ages, but the songs — two dozen of them, including freestyle rap, love ballads and salsa numbers — have elevated it into an unqualified visceral triumph.

As a floating eco-system located in the foothills of the Himalayas, with its estate boundaries peppered with forbidding anti-trespassing signs, the Woodstock School certainly represents a challenge to those who expect their cultural contexts rooted in some ethos or the other. It exists in one of Mussoorie’s most rarefied enclaves in the small township of Landour, and stands in some contrast to Washington Heights in the musical, which is depicted as a cultural cul-de-sac its denizens find so hard to ‘make it out’ of.

On opening night, as a purportedly ‘local attendee’, even if I haven’t actually ever lived in Mussoorie, being in the midst of this clearly globalised (read: so many white faces) and decidedly privileged community, felt almost alienating, if only momentarily. What was Indian here seemed only to be by way of geographic accident.

Russell and Okie certainly grasp these complexities. At the very first rehearsal, the cast and crew made a giant world map, entirely out of Post-its, on the floor of Parker Hall, the school’s main auditorium. Each note was a response to the question, “Where are you from?” Understandably, in an international residential school, where more than half the students are from overseas, the responses were seldom straightforward.

The director’s note talks of how the notion of ‘home’ is such a loaded one. In his classroom, Russell has introduced a module that deals with classical Indian theatre, in which excerpts from Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam are performed. So there is definitely a push and pull that is taking place between the local and the global, without resorting to the kind of tokenism that can be equally problematic.

At the end of the day, it is the education that matters. As if on cue, the kids throw themselves into their parts with élan, becoming shining exemplars of great schooling. The musical then becomes a show of unbridled extroversion, with young boys strutting their stuff as fully grown men, even as the remarkably self-possessed girls become women of the world. The live musicians, which includes students and teachers alike, stationed in the auditorium’s balcony seats, never let the pace slacken, and the singing is frequently top-notch. It is one of those performances in which one tends to notice every single member of the cast. In a school production, even bit parts are very often populated by youngsters with great character. The cliché ‘growing up before our eyes’ has never seemed more tangible before.

The author is a freelance writer and theatre critic


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 4:17:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/highschool-musicals/article8522044.ece

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