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August 22, 2018

Debunking the Myth – Why Rock of Ages CAN work for your group.


Are you interested in a more modern musical with a rock feel, but have several hesitations that prevent you from considering this option? I was in this position at the beginning of the school year, searching for a musical that was new and different that would engage my students and get them excited about participating in a high school musical. Yet on the other hand, I still wanted a production that would give them a meaningful music experience and would work for my small school and my equally small musical budget. This is when I stumbled upon the High School Edition of the musical Rock of Ages, and having recently seen the adult version at our local theater, my interest was immediately piqued. But, with my interest and excitement came great hesitation — a racy script, challenging rock-style singing, and call for a big ensemble cast. Would our little school be able to pull this off? Were the kids even interested in this type of show/music? Does a more modern musical still provide benefit to my students? If you are considering this musical (or one similar) and can’t get past the looming concerns or voices of doubt in your head, this article will attempt to use personal successful experience to help allay your hesitations.

Myth #1 – My school or program is too small
This show is all about the ensemble, and if you are like me, you are worried about simply filling the main roles, let alone having enough quality singers to cast a large ensemble. However, the great thing about this show is that the title is extremely recognizable and well-known, and it will get your desired demographic interested and excited enough to come out and audition, which is half the battle. Our school, Pawnee High School in Pawnee, Illinois has a high-school student body of less than 200 students, yet at the auditions for this musical, we had forty-five students audition — an entire grade for us! We ended up with a cast of thirty and a production crew of twenty — all students from grades nine through twelve. And I believe this great turnout is due in large part to the excitement generated by the title of this show paired with the popularity of the movie of the same name. We also got students further excited by hosting a reveal rally in which we slowly gave performance and music clues to eventually reveal the musical to them. We dressed in eighties-inspired costumes, involved our principal singing a song from the musical, and really created a fun experience to get the kids excited about being a part of the production.

Another unexpected positive outcome: I had students auditioning who were not previously or typically involved in the music program and/or had never before participated in a musical or theatre production. Of our thirty member cast, ten had never been in a production prior to Rock of Ages: High School Edition, and several of those students were talented enough for lead roles. This opened up a whole new group of talented students to draw from, students who enjoyed the experience so much that they are already excited about participating again next year and/or joining our music program for the next school year.

And a final note about casting – although there are many characters in this show, many of them can be doubled (we did this with our Mayor/Ja-Keith characters). Also, the contract for the High School Edition allows gender-blind casting, which is extremely helpful in a high school setting where it is always difficult to get guys involved. We took advantage of this allowance for the roles of both Lonny and Dennis, and it worked out perfectly for us. The girls that played these roles had no hesitation about it; they actually could hit the notes in the octave written for the guys, and the audience completely bought into it.

Myth #2 – My community is too conservative
This was a definite concern for me as I was considering selecting this musical for our high school production. Pawnee is a small, 2,700-person village in rural Illinois with strong church support throughout both our school and community. I was not sure how the storyline and dialogue in Rock of Ages would be received by our community and parents. With this in mind, I chose Rock of Ages: High School Edition, and it was the right choice for us. The High School Edition keeps the essence of the show and all of the great music, but extrapolates any offensive language, questionable dialogue, or risqué storylines. The most offensive word in the script is “suck,” and the most racy scene involves a character running across the stage in his boxers. To date (one month after the performance), I have not had a single parent or community member complain about language, storyline, or anything related to that.

And of course, when directing we have the ability to make staging decisions that can either emphasize or downplay certain ideas or concepts depending on our audience. For us, we downplayed the idea that the “Bourbon Room” was a bar. We did not use any alcohol bottles in props, no mugs that appeared to look like drinks were being served, and when I talked about the venue with the students I always referred to it as a music venue. We also used the idea of “illusion” or relied on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks in scenes that could be viewed as more risqué. For instance, there is a scene where the two main characters (Sherrie and Stacee) are in the bathroom together. We did not use a toilet or any props other than a sign that said “Men’s Room.” We had Stacee turn to a railing that is in the wing where the two actors were standing and “act” as if he were at a urinal. There was no urinal, he didn’t pull down his pants, and yet we got the idea across to the audience and kept the hilarity of the scene intact without offending our more sensitive members of the audience. And in fact, this was one of the audience’s overall favorite scenes in the entire musical — and all we used onstage was a simple poster!

Myth #3 – The music is too hard, too high, too “rock” for my students to sing properly
While the above statement might be true about eighties music in general, the same music in a musical setting is infinitely more singable and achievable for your students. I was extremely worried that my students would not be able to sing this music, or even worse, would wreck their voices trying to sing it. But what we found as we began rehearsing is that we could make smart choices which would keep the integrity of the music, but also allow our students to sing with good vocal health. For instance, our guys made specific choices about when to use falsetto, when to sing with full voice, when to back off, and especially when it was necessary to take a note (or entire passages) up or down the octave as needed. We also had some of our girls sing the tenor parts when needed, and we often had the full cast or members of the cast singing offstage to help create a fuller sound so that those onstage were not straining their voices. And a positive, unexpected bonus, the students loved the music! Some had heard the songs prior, others were not familiar with any of the songs, but overall they enjoyed the music, enjoyed singing it, and grew to love it.

We also purchased the “SF Rehearse” package, which more than paid for itself. This package provides recorded tracks which you can use to help learn the music and rehearse the music, as well as a track you could potentially use for the performance. This allowed us to save money on a rehearsal accompanist. Instead, we used the tracks along with my skills as a music teacher to rehearse music and rehearse the show. And although w
e could have used the performance tracks for the show (as they are very high quality), we decided to put the money we had saved on a rehearsal accompanist toward a live band. We were able to secure four professional musicians to perform with us, and it created an amazing experience for our students. Had we not been able to save the cost of the rehearsal accompanist, we would not have had the money in our budget for the live band.

Most importantly, we had a discussion at the beginning of the rehearsal period about the importance of healthy singing, and that all the same techniques that we practice daily in choir still apply — posture, breath support, open throat, etc. – even when (and especially when) singing more modern music like the songs in Rock of Ages. This is my personal opinion and I know it might not be shared by other music teachers, but…our students are singing pop, rock, modern music whether or not we do this type of music in school. So why not work with them as they sing this music so that we can give them the help, knowledge, and tools that they need to do it safely and without damaging their voices? The students in my production all finished the show in good vocal health, and hopefully with a better knowledge of how to sing this type of music without damage to their developing voices.

Myth #4 – My budget is too small
I would guess this is a common concern at many schools, and our school is no different. We do not have unlimited spending and must work within the budget and the resources that are available to us. It is true that the cost to license and perform a newer musical is typically more expensive than an older musical. However, this musical had unexpected savings in other areas. For instance, with the show being set in the eighties and in an “everyday” type of setting, we saved lots of money on costumes. The students provided many of their own costume pieces — items that are actually back in style today such as ripped jeans, converse sneakers, and rock t-shirts. We scouted thrift stores, took advantage of clearance racks at big department stores, and asked for parents to clean out their closets and donate anything they still had from the eighties. The parents loved it! They became our biggest resource for costumes, as many of them lived through this time period and were excited to be able to advise their child about what to wear and how to wear it.

We also saved money with the set. Although this musical does call for several different locations and settings, we found that we did not need a full construction to show a change in location. In fact, we “changed” set in many of the scenes by simply swapping a sign or poster. In our school, we have a small 300-seat auditorium with a typical proscenium-style stage, but absolutely no backstage space. So, we got creative with the space we had available. We used the wings to denote a change of location, we split the stage in half for scenes that required two locations within the same song/scene, and we utilized the front of the stage (and even some auditorium floor space) to denote other locations. For the Bourbon Room, we used three tall billboards on wheels that we could easily spin to change the scene. And we created our Bourbon Room “stage” using the same risers we perform on for our choir concerts. We used minimal props and minimal scenery and let our cast members fill the space with their personalities and presence.

Had I discarded the option of performing Rock of Ages due to all of the concerns listed above, I would have missed out on what turned out to be an amazing experience for me, for my students, and for our audience. Overall, my students loved this show! They had so much fun with the quirky characters, the energetic music, and the fun story. They have already made comments like, “How will we be able to top this next year?” And our audience loved it as well. Most of the parents of today’s high school students are the same people who actually lived through the 1980s, who fondly remember the music of the eighties, who feel nostalgia for the clothes and verbiage of this time period, and who appreciate the eighties references and humor. Many of our parents were singing right along with their children, and perhaps this show gave those parents a talking point with a teenager who sometimes seems to live in a totally different world from them. If given the choice, I would absolutely choose to perform this musical again. It was fun for me as the director, it was engaging and enjoyable for our audience, and it created plenty of teachable moments with my cast and crew, but just as importantly, it created many memorable moments for us all.

To learn more about performing Rock of Ages: High School Edition, visit our website.