In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, which appears in the paper’s online edition, I consider this year’s listing of the plays and musicals most frequently produced by American high schools, and what it tells us about what the students who do those plays are learning from them. Here’s an excerpt.
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What’s a play that everybody knows? “Arsenic and Old Lace” fits the bill—but why? To be sure, Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 black comedy about a family of maniacs, homicidal and otherwise, was a huge Broadway hit that was subsequently turned into a movie starring Cary Grant, then performed four times on network TV. In addition, regional theaters still mount “Arsenic and Old Lace” often enough that I’ve reviewed it three times, most recently last month in New Jersey. But it’s been three decades since “Arsenic and Old Lace” was last seen on Broadway, and a half-century since it was last done on TV. Nor is Kesselring’s play a classic: It’s just a very well-made commercial comedy. So what explains the unlikely fact that so many literate Americans still recognize the title of a 77-year-old play that by all rights ought to be long forgotten?
The simple and surprising answer might be found among the kids shuffling back to classes after summer vacation: Most of us did it, or saw it, in high school.
For the past eight decades, Dramatics, a monthly magazine for theater students and teachers, has published an annual survey of the plays and musicals that are most frequently produced by U.S. high schools. Nearly 4,000 schools responded to the 2017-18 survey, whose results were released last month. The musicals are a predictable mix of modern-day Broadway hits topped by “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Addams Family.” The plays, however, are something else again. In descending order, they are:
1. “Almost, Maine”
2. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
3. “Peter and the Starcatcher”
4. “Alice in Wonderland”
5. “Our Town”
6. “Twelve Angry Men”
7. “The Crucible”
8. “Arsenic and Old Lace”
9. “A Christmas Carol”
10. “Radium Girls”
Certain aspects of this list strike me as just a bit suspect. To begin with, it contains only one pre-20th-century play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the most perenially popular of Shakespeare’s sublime comedies. What’s more, the only other indisputable classic is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”…
What of the other plays? That’s where things get interesting—in a manner of speaking….
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Read the whole thing here.
To read or listen to NPR’s story about the latest survey of popular high-school plays—and to look at the historical database of popular high-school plays compiled by NPR—go here.