When Basalt High School’s choir director Brittany von Stein was hired four years ago, only 24 school students auditioned for the spring musical. When ‘High School Musical’ opens tonight for four performances, nearly double that number will fill the stage. It’s the biggest musical cast ever at Basalt High School and a potent symbol for how much the program has grown in recent years.
“Seventy-five tried out this year,” says von Stein, who serves as producer and musical director for the show. “Back then, I had to beg boys to join. People do get cut now, but the stage is only so big and more importantly the budget is only so big.”
Annually, the musical costs $30,000 to produce, none of which comes from the Roaring Fork School District.
“Unlike other schools who have a drama teacher on staff with stipends for a musical included, we have to fundraise from the ground up,” von Stein says. “We want kids to have a great experience, but it’s so expensive. No one realizes it.”
The musical tries to recoup money by selling program ads, applying for grants and through ticket sales, concessions and donations. The majority of the cost goes to production and to hiring professionals to oversee elements from costumes to lighting to set design.
“We have built this team of professionals who come back year after year to help with the show, and it’s taken more seriously as a result,” von Stein says. “You have kids that are 100-percent dedicated, and everyone’s in place to make these kids shine. They don’t have to go find their own costumes or build the set on their own anymore.”
The professionals include director Michael Schoepe, who is returning to direct his second Basalt musical after a five-year hiatus.
“The Basalt students are a special group,” he says. “They’re very grateful, hardworking people. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Schoepe’s vision for this year’s show aims to bring common elements in everyone’s teen years to life, but also allow students to own their characters and incorporate their ideas into each scene.
While last year students played animals in “Seussical,” this year they get to explore characters a little closer to home. “High School Musical” debuted as a Disney film back in 2006 and quickly rose to cult status among younger generations.
Paige Northrup, who has performed in Theater Aspen productions since age 8 and plays the female lead Gabriella, says, “I loved it as a kid. I loved the whole story about how there was not a star in heaven that I couldn’t reach. That message stayed with me. This musical version shares a similar message. I really like that.”
Her co-star Jackson Rapaport admits to being less enthralled with the movie. “I watched it once I got the role, and I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t really impressed,” he says.
And yet the storyline about a basketball star who wants to try out for the school musical hits close to home for him. By all accounts, Rapaport, an athlete who has enjoyed singing his whole life, has faced the same challenges as his character.
“I’ve always wanted to do the musical, but I was never able to just because basketball and the musical are at the exact same time and practices conflict,” he says. “The story is literally my everyday life now.”
While both leads resonate with their fictional characters, they also acknowledge that Basalt is well beyond the “stay in your lane” school mentality that their characters have to overcome. It’s a tribute to the culture at Basalt High School.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” von Stein says, “because in the men’s chorus it’s all jocks. Never in my life would I have thought that all these boys would want to sing. At BHS, we’ve already accepted this idea that it’s okay to play a cello and be a skater.”
With diversity in choice comes a diversity of schedules to manage, making that component of the show true to life.
“The biggest challenge is having 40 kids with 40 different schedules and making sure they’re students first and family members and members of society and balancing their jobs and health and also putting on a good show,” von Stein says.
But, like in the musical, the cast and crew have found a way to make it work. Rapaport promises the show comes with a big dose of humor, while Northrup thinks it has powerful messages to share with younger kids about pursuing your passion, forgiveness and getting along with others. Von Stein calls the musical a “modern-day ‘Grease’.”
“It’s that mixture of great catchy music, a good story and a beautiful happy ending,” director Schoepe says. “Younger people who know the movie will enjoy seeing the stage adaptation, because there are a lot of elements that are enhanced in the musical production. It will be really fun for people to discover what the movie grew into on the stage.”
“High School Musical” opens tonight at the Basalt Middle School auditorium and runs Feb. 21 through Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. Tickets are available online at basalthighschoolmusic.brownpapertickets.com with a credit card or at the door with cash or check only for $15/adult or $10/student or senior.