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“The Start of Something New” for Fort Wayne Youtheatre

Youtheatre presents High School Musical

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Two or three years ago, Fort Wayne Youtheatre was having a little problem.

Some of the classics like The Velveteen Rabbit and Snow White that the organization had relied on through much of its seven decades of existence weren’t drawing the crowds like they used to. Not that the actors were playing to half-empty houses by any means, but interest in those plays seemed to have tapered off. “Those shows just weren’t selling out like they had been in the past,” says Harvey Cocks, Youtheatre’s executive director.

But Cocks has spent practically his entire life in the theater, including nearly 30 years working with young people at Youtheatre, and he’s well aware of the truth behind one of the fundamental cornerstones of show business — when the audience’s tastes change, you change with it. “We began looking around for properties that were modern literary classics in schools,” he says.

Attendance improved. In fact, Youtheatre’s production of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day in 2006 became the most successful production in Youtheatre’s history.

But the production that kicks off Youtheatre’s 74th season on October 13 promises to be even bigger than that — High School Musical.

To call High School Musical a phenomenon would be underselling it. First shown as a movie on the Disney Channel in early 2006, High School Musical broke all ratings records on that channel, and then went on to sell truck loads of DVDs, CDs, shirts, books… you name it. The sequel was just as popular as the first one, and Zac Efron, the lead in both movies, became a star.

The plot is a variation on an old story: popular basketball star Troy and studious Gabriella snag the lead roles in their high school musical, causing trouble between the various factions in the school.

Kia Miller, who plays the female lead Gabriella in Youtheatre’s production, describes her character as “…sweet and smart and nice to everyone, even when they’re mean to her. She’s definitely a little nerdy.” She’s pitted against Sharpay, who’s neither sweet nor nice. “I’m the evil one,” says Lauren Palmer, who plays Sharpay. “She thinks a lot of herself. She’s the diva of the school, and I think she realizes she can’t always be the diva.”

Troy runs up against his father, the coach, and many of his jocko teammates, who are wondering why their captain wants to be in a musical. So, if you’re thinking Montagues and the Capulets but with lots of singing and dancing (and no blood shed), or Sharks and Jets, you’re not too far off. Or, if you want a more recent model… “It’s kind of like a modern day Grease,” says Alex Tordi, who plays Troy in the Youtheatre production.

Rights for the stage production were initially available only to high schools, but a little less than a year ago, Youtheatre discovered Disney had released the play to other theater groups. The royalties were daunting, but Harvey Cocks thought Youtheatre would be missing a great opportunity. “You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” he says. “We said ‘Let’s try to be the first ones.’ And we are. It’s the first time locally that it’s been done by a theater group rather than a high school group.”

The advanced interest was stunning. You might think that overexposure — this thing is everywhere — might dampen the desire to see High School Musical, but apparently not. “It’s been done by several high schools, it’s all over the place, and yet we’re being bombarded by telephone calls and requests for tickets and sponsorships,” Cocks says. “Overexposure has helped us with it. It’s one of the greatest things. All those TV shows and DVDs serve to promote the production.”

The cast members agree. Emily Arnold, who plays Chelsea, says she gets approached at school. “I’ll carry the script around at school and people will say ‘oh my gosh, you’re in high school musical! Can I see that? When can I go? I’m so excited for you!’ It’s amazing how many people are really into it.”

“Even my little cousin, who’s like five years old, he loves it,” adds Melanie Lubs who plays one of the cheerleaders. “He grew his hair out to be like Troy. It appeals to everyone.”

“One of my teachers called me out,” laughs Alex Tordi. “We had to write a paper, and he said ‘maybe you could write about the wonderful, fabulous life of Zac Efron’.”

Over 150 people showed up to audition. Youtheatre’s Kathi Lansky estimates that about 85% were new people. “We’re also seeing a lot of kids that were at Youtheatre when they were little, and they came back for this,” she adds.

Cocks is thrilled by the reaction, though he said when he first heard High School Musical, he wasn’t impressed. “I’m one of these idiots who likes all kinds of music, but the first time I heard it, I didn’t like the score very much,” he laughs. “I said ‘I can’t tell one song from another.’ But as we’ve been in rehearsal I’m feeling the difference between the melodies. There’s a couple very pretty ballads in it, too. “

“You know, when I was a teenager, it was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland that drew us to the theaters,” Cocks says. “This has the same plot as all those movies — ‘let’s put on a show — with more modern language and, of course, they’re not singing ‘I Love New York In June.’ I’d say over 50% of the kids who came to audition knew the music before they got here.”

“I think it indicates that kids want their own shows, their own music,” Cocks adds. “They just relate to it.”

Youtheatre presents Disney’s High School Musical
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturday, Oct 13 and Sunday Oct 14, at 2:00pm – Arts United Center
Tickets: $15.00 – adults and students; $10.00 – School shows per teacher/parent/student
Box Office opens Monday, October 8 (260) 422-4226

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