Alexis Ionescu
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The 'High School Musical' Experience

Four Directors, Three Months, Two Show Days, One Disaster of a Musical

The poster for the show, made by yours truly

For my final drama class in high school, a few of my friends and I decided to direct the school’s musical of the year. This would start the worst semester of my life, academically and emotionally. We started the semester with the plan to put on Peter Pan Jr. It was an easy musical for the talent level in our class, and we were excited about it. That is, until the issue of the Indians were brought up. This is obviously a very racist depiction of Native American people, and we had a few ideas, some of which were making the Indians another group of Lost Boys, or scrapping them all together. We ultimately decided that we couldn’t do Peter Pan, and it was back to the drawing board.

The next two options were Chicago and The Little Mermaid. Drastically different, we know. The directors were ready to take on the challenge of Chicago. We had some of the roles precast and it was a Broadway show, which is a big step for our school's drama program. For the past three years, we had only done children’s theatre. We were excited for the change and ready for the semester.

However, a valid point was brought up: our class has no rhythm, and Chicago is a dance musical. So, amidst the chaos of trying to convince our teacher to let us do Chicago, The Little Mermaid became our backup. Again, some of the roles we had precast, and it's a fun show. We weren’t thrilled about this option, but it was only a backup.

Being an arts class, we didn’t have a large budget, and Chicago took up ALL of it. A three thousand dollar show was, unfortunately, out of our reach. However, we were so adamant about it, our teacher took the March Break to decide if we would do that or our backup—you know, the one that no one wanted to do. After emailing back and forth, we discovered that Chicago was out of the picture, but we weren’t ready to give up that easily.

One of the directors and I brought up a list of musicals we were open to, including, but not limited to, Grease, Rent, Legally Blonde, and High School Musical. We discussed, argued, messaged, and eventually decided to go with High School Musical.

This was the beginning of the end.

We held auditions, and something was abundantly clear. Our class, as suspected, has absolutely no talent, whatsoever. Casting was difficult, as it seemed almost everyone had a solo at one point, but we came to a decision, two of which were the leads—Troy and Gabriella. Gabriella was given to myself and another director. Troy was given to a fellow grade twelve.

Rehearsals had started. We were already behind schedule, as we had wanted to start ASAP due to the caliber of our class’ talent, which, to remind you, was approximately none. It was a slow go, and our scripts hadn’t even been ordered yet, so we began with singing and dancing. It was a challenge, and by the end, we had scrapped a couple songs and dances anyway. It was frustrating—we had talented directors, but that was about it. We spent two weeks on one song—"Stick to the Status Quo"—and it was rough. The harmonies were off, no one knew the dance moves, and spoiler alert, it never got any better. Still no sign of the scripts.

We were onto week three now, and we started "Getcha Head in the Game." We thought this one would be slightly easier; most of the singing is Troy, and the only thing the ensemble had to do was repeat what Troy said every minute or so. We were wrong, as our class still managed to screw this up. They had absolutely no energy when singing this song, and we had to resort to people in the wings singing along with the dancers. Our scripts were nowhere to be found.

The second week of April, our prayers had been answered—our scripts came. We could finally start blocking and get on with the show. However, that's not what we did. For the next week, our scripts sat in our lockers, as the musical director insisted we finished the song we were working on.

Blocking the show was a nightmare. There hadn't been a day that everyone was in class since the first day of the semester, so we needed stand-ins in almost every scene. That means that we had to reteach the blocking to anyone who wasn’t in class. It was mostly our actors for Chad, Ryan, and one of our Coach Boltons.

The dances were getting there. Sharpay and Ms. Darbus would leave everyday to choreograph one song or another, again leaving us with stand-ins. This wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t have stand-ins for Ryan as well, meaning we might as well have not blocked any of the twins scenes.

We had a few dedicated actors—Taylor and Ms. Darbus—who showed up almost everyday and worked hard on their lines. They were the two that held the show together when everyone else was freaking out about, well, everything.

Our show date was fast approaching and we were not prepared. The show was a mess and no one knew their lines. We had three weeks left. To put it lightly, we were screwed. There was nothing else we could’ve done except push the date back a week, and that’s what we did.

I know what you must be thinking. This is a redemption story; the cast pulled through and we had an amazing show! Well, dear reader, you would be wrong. The extra week did little for us, as a cast and as friends. Seriously, I’m surprised some of my friends made it out of this musical alive.

It was finally here. The week of the show. We had a rehearsal that Sunday, of which only six people showed up to. Monday afternoon was our dress rehearsal, and it went as smoothly as you would think it would. One of our Gabriellas, the one who constantly complained about never getting to run through the show fully, didn’t show up. Ryan wasn’t there either. Our tech was a mess, as our sound and lighting guys never rehearsed with us until now. I had to sit with our sound guy and go cue by cue with him with the sound effects and songs. We were, however, still eternally grateful for him, because he was a graduated student that our teacher hired to do sound for us. If she hadn’t, I doubt our sound would’ve been half as good. The dances were sloppy at best, the songs were off key, and the cast still didn’t fully know their lines.

We had been working with the grade nines, teaching them dances and songs, for a few weeks. We were finally ready to rehearse with them. It was as if God herself decided to cut us some slack. The grade nines had rhythm, had vocal training, had passion. They outshined our cast by a landslide. They had the energy we needed, and they actually listened to us. Maybe, we had thought naively, just maybe, we can pull this off.

It was our first show day. We were scrambling. Troy, Gabriella, and Kelsi had a workshop that day, so we couldn’t do a run through until after school, a few hours before the performance. We spent our class period running through "We’re All In This Together," a dance we had learnt less than 24 hours prior. When the trio returned to school, we got started. Well, more like dawdled around for half an hour, and then got started. Our teacher interrupted the run-through a handful of times, calling out for transitions and lights and missed cues. Our one hour show was done in an hour and a half. The pizza came, we ate, and we got ready for the show to start.

The first song went okay; we ran in from the back while some grade nines did cartwheels and cheers on the stage. The following scene was going well; Troy and Gabriella were singing beautifully, and it was actually okay. Our transitions left something to be desired, but for the first time in the semester, I let out a sigh of relief. Our singing and dancing wasn’t the greatest, but the acting (of which I mostly directed) was something I was happy to put my name on. I had thought that if it goes that smoothly tomorrow night, we might actually get that redemption arc we talked about.

Gabriella thought differently. The entire next day, my show day, she was ranting about how awful the night before was and how she can’t wait for this show to be over, but she hopes it goes better for this performance. Major pressure on me to live up to her high expectations.

We had a day show, and it actually went well! Transitions were on par, sound was perfect, energy was up, it was everything we could’ve dreamed for. The audience even aww’ed when I stage kissed Troy. It’s smooth sailing from here, thought the cast.

Our dress rehearsal went well, everyone was running on and off stage to eat the pizza, but it still worked in our favour. Well, that’s if you don’t count Taylor throwing up in the parking lot, and most of our grade nines telling us they can’t make it to that night’s show. Did I mention that we had to recast one small teacher role four different times? Make it five for this performance.

Now I can’t lie to you, the night show didn’t go too badly. We did have a sound mishap though—during "Getcha Head in the Game" (of which Ms. Darbus and Martha had to fill out the crowd), tech played "What I’ve Been Looking For." This wouldn’t have been a problem, had they realized sooner and not played half of the track while the actors were aimlessly trying to “play basketball.”

We had a final day performance the next day, of which I was signed out of school for, so I wasn’t in. I’ve been told, however, that it was made into the exact joke that Ms. Darbus worked so tirelessly to prevent.

There are lessons I will never forget from this musical. For example, I will never forget that it can take five people to get a cast member to do what they’re told, but one person with candy to get them to do it faster. I will also never forget the painstaking effort put into this show, and I will never forget the grade nines telling me that they look up to me and hope to be as involved in school theatre as I am when they're in grade twelve. If you were wondering, yes, that did make me cry.

They say high school is the best four years of your life, and you should cherish them. However, if you go to East High, real or just on stage, maybe just cherish the time when you get to go home.

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