Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Play’s The Thing — High School Productions Down The Decades

High School Playi
High School Play

When my high school decided to do Guys and Dolls my senior year, I was ecstatic. My folks had seen the show right after I was born, and had the original cast album. I already knew all the songs by heart: “I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere …”

How could Miss McMindes not cast me?

She did not cast me, but I was her top ticket-salesman, as I had been the year before for The Music Man. So the first thing I checked in Dramatics magazine’s yearly log was where Guys and Dolls ranked among high school musicals in 1966.

Explore The Data

See what plays and musicals were the most popular in high schools through the decades.

The magazine shared with us its annual lists dating back to 1938, and we’ve pulled together a searchable list of the most popular shows by decade. And for the radio story above, that sent me online searching for high school performances over the years — a rabbit hole down which I advise you to travel. There’s amazing talent out there.

Anyway, it turns out that in the 1966 Guys and Dolls was pretty far down the list. And the year before, The Music Man cracked the top five.

The Educational Theater Association, let’s note, is only polling its member-schools in the lists it prints in Dramatics. The organization had 500 members in 1938; it has close to 5,000 today. But that’s out of 21,000 high schools in the U.S., so these rankings are hardly definitive.

They are consistent enough, though, to suggest some trends and truisms. And not just about musicals. Early on, there weren’t many: Of a total of more than a thousand high school productions in 1939, the editors counted just 30 “operettas.”

A smattering of Gilbert & Sullivan, I’m guessing. Who better, after all, to sing “Three Little Maids from School” than three little maids in school.

The editors complained in their early surveys that the plays being produced were “not on a par with the music played by school orchestras.” In other words, the bandleader had his students playing Beethoven, while the drama teacher was mounting titles like Parents and Pigtails.

The editors suggested a solution: Do one classic, for every two popular plays — and then they complained for years that no one was following their advice. They did note, though, that “plays dealing with the problems of youth” tended to top the list — Life With Father, Little Women, Junior Miss, plus two that have stood the test of time: Our Town and You Can’t Take It With You.

The latter has been one of the 10 most produced high school plays since the rights were made available to schools in 1939. And Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s plain-spoken portrait of life in the fictional small American town of Grover’s Corners, has only missed the top 10 in five years across all those decades.

Note that both shows have age-appropriate parts for high schoolers, and large casts, so plenty of kids can participate. And Our Town is designed to take place on an empty stage with no scenery. All you really need is a ladder.

By the early 1960s, musicals had more than crept into the mix, they were threatening in some years to take it over. Fully half of the top 20 shows in a few 1970s years were musicals.

Lots of Rodgers & Hammerstein … almost always Guys and Dolls and The Music Man. And remember I mentioned age-appropriate parts? Well, Bye Bye Birdie, with its Elvis jokes and teen characters, leapt into the high school top 10 as soon as it closed on Broadway in 1961, and still hasn’t left.

In more recent decades, Birdie‘s squeaky-clean teens have been joined by the comparatively raunchy high schoolers in Grease (the school version edits out a pregnancy, and a lot of dicey language). And more recently, the slicked-back ’50s ducktail haircuts in Grease have been joined by the ’60s beehives in Hairspray.

Interestingly, never even once in the top-10 most produced shows, was another musical that has teen characters: West Side Story. Probably that’s because the show also has ethnic tensions, premarital sex and gang warfare, which provide maybe too many teachable moments. Also, to do West Side Story, you need a lot of that rarest of high school creatures: boys who can dance ballet. And Leonard Bernstein’s music is tough.

It’s worth noting that the top 10 shows of any year are by nature going to be conservative choices — shows that work for drama teachers: lots of mid-sized parts, no big starring role that’ll have to carry the whole show. There aren’t enough adolescent Streisands out there for there to be three dozen Funny Girls nationally in one year.

When a budding Streisand does come along — Heather Headley at Northrup High in Fort Wayne, Ind., for instance — she’ll sound like a star-in-the-making. In this case she was. A few years after singing the hell out of “People,” while playing Fanny Brice in high school, she was among the luckiest people in the world, originating the role of Nala in The Lion King on Broadway. And a few more years after that she won a Tony Award playing the title role in Elton John’s Aida.

What the top 10 or even top 20 shows don’t reveal is the breadth of what gets produced by high schools these days. When the magazine’s editors do a deep dive into statistics, they’ll note things like the fact that in a given year, besides the 10 most popular musicals, there are another 140 titles that get at least a couple of productions each, not to mention more than 1,000 different plays.

It’s safe to say that every year, somewhere in a high school gymnasium, a 17-year-old boy is waxing dramatic in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and high school girls are playing prostitutes in Miss Saigon.

Would this please those original editors? The ones who argued for more seriousness in high school shows?

Hard to say, but they’d certainly applaud the fact that in recent decades some Shakespeare has crept into the mix, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and on the musical side, a bit of Stephen Sondheim.

His Into the Woods is offered for schools in a special school edition that concentrates almost entirely on the first act, where characters are all trying to get to happily-ever-after, omitting the darker second act that looks at what happens after happily-ever-after

In terms of pure popularity, though, Sondheim’s brand of fairy-tales-ironic can’t “hold a candle” (as Lumiere might say) to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which closed on Broadway in 2007, and for the next six years, was the number-one most-produced musical in high schools across the country.

From Crescenta Valley High in La Crescenta, Calif., to Greenville High in Pennsylvania, and Twin Lakes High in Monticello, Ind., and Dutchtown High in Geismar, La., and on and on … a nationwide chorus of high schoolers, singing to the rafters about a girl who’s into books, who loves a guy who built a library.

Those original Dramatics editors would surely be proud.

Alan Cheuse, Novelist And Longtime NPR Contributor, Dies At 75

Alan Cheuse.

Alan Cheuse, the novelist, teacher and longtime literary commentator for NPR, has died at the age of 75. His daughter, Sonya, confirmed that he died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident two weeks ago.

“On behalf of the family, we are in deep grief at the loss of our beloved father, husband and grandfather,” Sonya Cheuse told NPR. “He was the brightest light in our family. He will always remain in our hearts. We thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support.”

Cheuse spent more than 25 years with NPR, contributing book reviews, profiles and commentary to All Things Considered, and lending his voice to online pieces, as well. During that time, he penned five novels of his own — the most recent of which, Prayers for the Living, was published this year.

As poet Robert Pinsky notes, Cheuse became a trusted voice for his peers much earlier than his work began with NPR in the 1980s. Pinsky met Cheuse when they were still in their teens, and the two studied together at Rutgers University, where Cheuse received his Ph.D. in 1974. He says that even while Cheuse was a student, tenured faculty would come to him for recommendations.

“He was the first, he was the first really impressive young writer I saw. We lived in a period when many great writers were alive. Alan was for me and many other people a guide to a very exciting world,” Pinsky says.

“Alan embodied the spirit of ambitious, far-ranging writing that characterized modernist writing at the time,” he adds.

It’s a sentiment echoed by others, too.

Mitchell Kaplan, the co-founder of Miami Book Fair International, says that Cheuse took him under his wing when Kaplan was a young bookseller.

“He became a friend and a mentor, and someone I admired so greatly. So willing to promote other writers. So involved and appreciative of the work that anyone was doing,” Kaplan says. “He always took so much pride in what others were doing.”

It’s a pride he expressed in teaching, as well. At the time of his death, Cheuse taught creative writing at George Mason University in Virginia, but for years, he led fiction workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in California.

While Cheuse was in the hospital, his students at GMU showed their appreciation of his teaching by opening the Alan Cheuse Literary Review, asking for submissions from all the GMU students and faculty “whose writing has been brightened by Alan’s sharp wit and wisdom to contribute to a special project.”

Within hours, they had received so many requests from writers and teachers outside the school that they had to expand their submission guidelines.

Sonya Cheuse, director of publicity for the publisher Ecco, says her father passed his love of literature down to her and to the rest of his family.

“My dad is the reason I love reading,” she says. “This is the family business.”

Cheuse is survived by his wife, Kris O’Shee; daughters Sonya and Emma; and son, Josh.

Cheetos, Canned Foods, Deli Meat: How The U.S. Army Shapes Our Diet

An infantryman eats food rations from cans during the Vietnam War.i

An infantryman eats food rations from cans during the Vietnam War.


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An infantryman eats food rations from cans during the Vietnam War.

An infantryman eats food rations from cans during the Vietnam War.


Many of the foods that we chow down on every day were invented not for us, but for soldiers.

Energy bars, canned goods, deli meats — all have military origins. Same goes for ready-to-eat guacamole and goldfish crackers.

According to the new book Combat-Ready Kitchen: How The U.S. Military Shapes The Way You Eat, many of the packaged, processed foods we find in today’s supermarkets started out as science experiments in an Army laboratory. The foodstuffs themselves, or the processes that went into making them, were originally intended to serve as combat rations for soldiers out in the battlefield.

Indeed, military needs have driven food-preservation experiments for centuries.

Canning, or bottling, was invented at the turn of the 19th century, when the French army offered a reward for someone who could invent a way to keep foods longer. (Napoleon’s men, as The Salt has reported, were often ill-provisioned.) But as author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo writes, the U.S. Army has taken this research to a whole other level.

She says many food innovations trace back to the Natick Soldier Systems Center, a U.S. Army research complex in Natick, Mass. The federal laboratory investigates how to make soldiers’ rations taste good and last longer. She says its initiatives have led to the processed cheese that’s now found in goldfish crackers and Cheetos. The center is also behind longer-lasting loaves of bread and the energy bar, which was originally created to give worn-out soldiers a boost, she says.

So what does that mean for us civilians? The Salt chatted with Marx de Salcedo to learn more. Here are highlights from the conversation.

The U.S. military's need for longer-lasting rations led to the invention of many modern processed foods.

The U.S. military’s need for longer-lasting rations led to the invention of many modern processed foods.

Library of Congress

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Library of Congress

How does Army research lead to products on our supermarket shelves?

Most people don’t realize that the military has a policy to get the science that it uses for rations into the public’s food. The reason is military preparedness. This dates back to a policy that was made after World War II, which is designed to make sure both the military and its supporters can be ready at a moment’s notice to convert over to producing rations or to create consumer products that they might be substituted in their stead. The key point here is that companies don’t generally invest in basic and applied food science. What the Army is looking at is the big questions in food science. There are not many other places interested or able to do the research, so the Army guides the direction of food science.

What’s one of the most surprising foods the U.S. military helped create?

There’s something called high-pressure processing. It’s not so much a surprise, but a wonderful example of how the Army organizes itself. They pick a topic, decide to pursue it and organize a team to solve the problem. The issue was finding new ways to preserve food, and HPP came out of that.

HPP is the application of a tremendous amount of pressure to food. The example I usually give is: Picture 20 minivans on a single penny. [The force applied] is that extreme, and what that does is it kills any bacteria that may be in the food.

The important thing here is that along the way, companies took the technique and began applying it to their own products. Many of the single-serving fresh juices use this [method] — it’s a way to sterilize juice without losing the flavor. Ready-to-eat guacamole uses HPP, and so do many salsas. The big one is Hormel. In the mid-2000s, it applied the technique to deli meats. This whole line of deli meats now says no preservatives on the label, and that probably means it was produced with HPP.

You mention in your book that America is feeding its children like they’re special ops. How so?

I literally realized that everything in my kids’ lunchboxes had military origins or influence — the bread, the sandwich meat, juice pouches, cheesy crackers, goldfish and energy bars. Even if we look at fresh items like grapes and carrots, the Army was involved in developing packaging for fruits and vegetables. In a larger sense, I estimate that 50 percent of items in today’s markets were influenced by the military.

What’s the military working on now that we may see in the future in supermarkets?

One thing they’re working on is shelf-stable pizza. What I mean by that is the vision of the future is really a place where we don’t need refrigeration. This pizza could just be left in your pantry for a long time, like as long as you leave [canned goods].

They’re also working on shelf-stable sandwiches, wraps and bagels. In fact, it seems like the military is moving to a system where they want to reduce or eliminate regular hot meals like breakfast, lunch and dinners. Instead, they’d just provide day-long grazing options for soldiers. I think we could definitely see this affect the consumer market in the future.