“We go beyond the box here a lot,” said High Tech High School’s musical theater director, Alex Perez, last week. “This specific production has been kind of a dream because we’ve been able to be fearless and free. With that comes a lot of responsibility, and I think that has given [the students] the opportunity to be even more responsible about the subject matter. It’s been really great to see their growth in the process.”
“It’s unlike any musical I’ve ever seen before,” said Isabella Rodriguez, a junior from North Bergen who sings and dances in the show. “This is definitely one of my favorite musicals ever. It’s really interesting from the choreography to the music and everything. It’s so modern. As you can see I’m wearing a harness right now. So we actually get to hook up onto ropes and things and we run on walls and do like jumping aerial work and all that stuff. I was scared at first but after you learn how to do it it’s really fun.”
For the upcoming performances of Spring Awakening, the Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards, the kids of High Tech High – a public county magnet high school based in North Bergen – will be acting, singing, dancing, and yes, flying. Wearing what amounts to mountain-climbing gear, they will be attached to rigs mounted atop the stage, allowing them to perform aerobic feats.
“They push us to do something new each year,” said Anastasia Beliakova, a senior from Hoboken. “Like last year it was puppeteering [for the show Avenue Q]. The year before that it was roller skating. We were skating onstage.”
“I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing half these things without Mr. P,” said Louis Garrido, a senior from Jersey City, referring to Perez. “Like hanging upside down dancing? Puppeteering? I never imagined myself playing with puppets but here I was.”
“The material always has to be challenging,” said Perez. “That’s the number one thing. It needs to challenge them somehow. There needs to be some sense of growth.”
Controversial subject matter
The staging isn’t the only challenging thing about Spring Awakening. The Broadway rock musical about the tribulations of a group of adolescent friends was based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind that was banned in Germany for its content.
“It’s a heavy show,” said Perez. “It’s mostly about growing up, being forced into adulthood without having a choice. A lot of it is lack of parenting and a lack of understanding how life works, and so they fall into many, many mistakes. Within that realm there’s everything from suicide to abuse to pregnancy to sex to homosexuality to things that they are not aware of because their parents have been too afraid to have an open dialog and discussion. The show sort of starts in that realm and then we find out where all these characters wind up.”
“It’s a heavy show.” --Alex Perez
“But what better way to learn about these topics than in a safe, classroom environment?” he continued. “We’ve toned down a little bit. In the original production there’s nudity. Obviously we’re not doing that. We toned down some of the language that we felt wasn’t really necessary. But the great thing about the show too is it’s not so linear. There’s a lot of abstract surrealism in the show that we’ve injected into it so we’re able to get away with content by being surrealistic with the way it’s being expressed onstage.”
In other words, the current version is more allegorical, less literal. “The original production is a very literal version,” said Perez. “Here, we’re actually turning it into more dance choreography with flying. We are respectful of the content and approach it in a very mature manner. These are junior and senior majors that are involved in this: [ages] 17, 18, some 16. It just so happens that the children they were all based on, they were all 15, 16, 17. It’s very rare that Spring Awakening is done with the actual age of the actors. The actors on Broadway were I think in their mid-20s to late 20s, portraying teenagers. So this completely changes everything. You really get to feel how vulnerable the subject matter is and how special it is.”
“I think that one of the most important things, especially as an audience member, is that you have to go into it open-minded,” said Georgia Sebesky, a junior from Jersey City. “The whole content of the show and what goes on throughout is very jarring to a lot of people. And I think one of the things you learn by the end of it is that this is real life. It doesn’t get sugar-coated. These things do happen, and it has to be dealt with in a mature way, no matter who you are. Because it’s going to be thrown at you at some point.”
Intense course of study
High Tech High School accepts students from all over Hudson County, with programs in science, technical skills, media, and the arts. Applicants into the musical theater program audition each winter.
“The school gets easily over 1,000 applicants a year and they only take in 120,” said Perez. “In my program I’m only allowed to take 10 to 12 per year. We try and grab the best of the best and give them many opportunities.”
Perez started the musical theater program at the school 14 years ago as a summer elective. The program quickly expanded to a full major, with complete musical performances each year. Spring Awakening is their 34th show.
Currently 20 kids are enrolled in the junior and senior musical theater courses and 25 more are freshmen and sophomores. For two hours each morning they study their major; the rest of the day is devoted to regular academic study. Then after school it’s back to theater work.
Last year the school was chosen by the prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse to participate in their elite adopt-a-school program, allowing the students to participate in workshops and training sessions in all aspects of stagecraft.
“We cover everything in the production from lighting to costumes to hair and makeup,” said Perez. “All the kids are divided into groups, so each student heads their own department within production. We have production meetings and we do it just like they would on a larger scale and they have deadlines to meet. Everything you see onstage is all input from the students. I’ll come in and I’ll direct and choreograph them, and I have a vision so I make sure that I give them what I want from my vision and then their job is to execute and follow through with that vision.”
“I change them around from year to year so they can get a full, broad spectrum,” he continued. “So if one year they’re working on our program and our playbill, the following year I’ll give them something else just to challenge them. I’m with them four years because they come in as freshmen, and as freshmen and sophomores they work crew. They do a lot of backstage work and they’re there to support the juniors and seniors.”
“Last year I was part of the crew for Avenue Q,” said Isabella Rodriguez, the junior from North Bergen who will be flying this year. “And that was an entirely different experience. Because I was backstage the whole time, helping the actors get dressed, changing scenes, cleaning up back here, and that was really fun too.”
Being an actor in the play is hard work. In addition to their role (or roles, with some playing multiple parts), the cast members are involved in all aspects of production, from building sets to playing in the band.
“I’m in the cast, I’m the assistant director, I’m a singer, I’m a dancer, I’m a flyer, I learned to play violin for the role,” said Anastasia Beliakova.
And that’s not counting the academic preparations for the play. “We went through a whole year of understanding the history of Germany in the 1800s,” said Perez. “And as a class we worked together on the social structures of Germany, what was going on at the time in history, the hierarchies of Germany at the time. Really thorough research. We started over the summer and then September, October, November was basically about hitting the books and getting all the information.”
Time well spent
Asked how the program had impacted her, Rodriguez said, “It really made me more out there, I guess you can say. I was more introverted when I first came to High Tech, and this made me more sociable with other people. It taught me how to work with a group as opposed to alone. And that’s something that was really helpful to my whole high school career.”
Louis Garrido, who revised his major in his junior year from audio engineering to musical theater, agrees.
“The last two years changed me,” he said, noting that he has opened up, made new friends, and discovered unexpected talents.
“A lot of places talk about team building,” he said. “Well, there’s nothing more team oriented than musical theater. There’s no ego involved, we’re all there to support each other. To support the show.”
Spring Awakening will be performed from March 27 through 29 at High Tech High School. Tickets are available at www.showtix4u.com.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.