Rise Is a High-School Musical with a Serious Mission

I feel like all of the shows I’ve done before have led to this,” says Jason Katims of his new drama series, Rise. He’s sitting in the living-room set of his latest NBC show, surrounded by cozy, rustic furniture hued in earth tones. This is the home of Lou Mazzuchelli, a high-school English teacher played by Josh Radnor, who aspires to transform the theater program at his school.

Inspired by the story of real-life drama teacher Lou Volpe, as portrayed in Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High, Rise depicts a fictional Pennsylvania town called Stanton—where steel was once paramount, families live modestly, and the arts have been eclipsed by day-to-day concerns. The setting might remind some viewers of another Katims project, which is no accident: the story, says the creator, “reminds me in many ways of Friday Night Lights,” his previous acclaimed high-school drama. The young characters on that series were driven to realize their individual and collective potential, just like those on Rise, which premieres on March 13. But instead of football, the focus here is on musical theater—minus much of the razzle-dazzle.

“As much as I loved Fame,” Katims says, “I didn’t want to do a show about a high school of the performing arts.” Rise’s teenagers don’t suddenly burst into song, and even the most talented ones don’t have Broadway aspirations. Instead, the show is smaller—and interested mainly in how dedicated teachers and students create a musical from the ground up, in a place where the arts are not exactly embraced.

The pilot episode opens with a sequence of images that situate the viewer in a distressed working-class town. Lou glances out his car window as he drives past a shuttered steel factory and a discarded cluster of construction hats; “MAGA” is etched on one in permanent marker. This is a place where people are out of work, where budgets are strapped, where music and art programs are the first to be cut. It’s precisely the sort of community, Katims suggests, that can be transformed by arts education.

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