The Most Popular High School Musical in the Country Is Creepy, Kooky
Drama clubs are looking beyond the old standards to bring newer works to their stages
Anyone who has attended high school anytime in the last 70 years is likely to have some memory of their school’s annual musical. Maybe you had a role in Carousel, or had friends in Little Shop of Horrors, or snickered at garish posters for Guys and Dolls. Or maybe you tried hard to ignore the musical—an impossible task considering how important it is to the school community.
The high school musical is as much a rite of passage for American students as reading The Great Gatsby or getting picked last for gym-class dodgeball. Don Corathers, editor of Dramatics, the monthly magazine for high school theater students and teachers published by the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), estimates that some 12,000 schools in the United States have a drama program. And in a 2017 survey of 3,000 schools, EdTA found that nearly 50 million people saw a high school play or musical. (Compare that to nearly 15 million people who saw a Broadway show in the 2018-19 season.)
Students perform at the 2019 National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also called the Jimmy Awards, at The Minskoff Theatre in New York City on June 24, 2019.
So what are parents and relatives and friends and classmates seeing when they enter high school theaters? NPR Ed, working with Dramatics, published a list of the most popular high school musicals and plays in the country. And the results are a long way from Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Topping the list is The Addams Family. (Show of hands (or Things): How many people knew there was an Addams Family musical?) Next is the Abba-stravaganza Mamma Mia!, followed by The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mary Poppins. (Further proof there is no aspect of American culture not colonized by Disney.)
The most-produced play—for the fifth consecutive year!—was Almost, Maine. (Be honest: How many of you have heard of it?) John Cariani's work, comprised of nine short pieces, was a hit in Portland, Maine, in 2004 and had a monthlong off-Broadway run in 2006 before becoming a staple of high school drama clubs. Shakespeare comes in at number two with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher, Thorton Wilder's Our Town, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
NPR Ed originally published the list as an update to a project that began in 2015 that tracks the most popular high school productions staged each year, from the 1940s up to today. It’s fascinating to see how certain staples—like Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Music Man—rise, fall, then settle into the middle of the pack as new titles—Seussical, Into the Woods, Newsies—topple giants when those musicals’ rights become available to school productions. (Hamilton, when it becomes available, will become the staple of school drama clubs.)
The complete NPR Ed report is packed with data and visualizations, and it’s good reading for anyone interested in how high school drama programs have evolved over the last 70 years—or even if you just want to feel smug about how hip your school was in the productions it mounted.