A Hollywood ending for Bucks County's' 'Drama High'

Truman High School Drama teacher, Tracey Gatte, 41, watches from the audience as her eighth period drama class rehearses scenes from their upcoming musical, "Honeymoon in Vegas" at the Levittown high school on Feb. 24, 2017.

It would have been a heck of a curtain drop for the acclaimed theater program at Levittown’s Harry S. Truman High School if the story had simply ended in 2013, when the legendary drama teacher Lou Volpe retired after a 44-year run and his legacy of boundary-pushing productions was enshrined in a popular book, Drama High.

That act, though, only set the stage for a second — one that could have an actual Hollywood ending.

Under the direction of Volpe’s high-spirited former protege, Tracey Gatte, 41 , Truman’s young actors just pulled off another world-premiere student production of a Broadway hit, Honeymoon in Vegas,  the school's fourth. 

But the grand finale that’s making the Truman drama kids more than a little giddy is gearing up 3,000 miles away. Casting is underway in Los Angeles for an NBC pilot of Drama High, to be set in a hardscrabble blue-collar community that looks a lot like lower Bucks County.

For Gatte, who spent more than two decades studying under or working with her Zelig-like mentor, the spotlight is nothing new.  "I never knew anything different," she said, walking the halls of the Baby Boom-era school in flip-flops and a glittery scarf.

Yet where Gatte shrugs at this latest plot twist, her mentor gushes.

“I was so overwhelmed,” said Volpe, 69.

The pilot's producer, Jeffrey Seller, of Hamilton, Rent, and In the Heights fame, and showrunner Jason Katims, of TV’s Friday Night Lights, have already settled on the actor to portray "Lou," the main character:  Josh Radnor, from How I Met Your Mother.  The school also has been buzzing with every new report that Rosie Perez will play the Gatte-inspired character “Tracey,” or that Moana star Auli’i Cravalho is joining the cast.

“It will be so cool,” enthused Mary Naughton, 18, who played the lead role of Betsy in Honeymoon. “I can’t wait to be in college and having people talk about it and I’d be, like, ‘That’s my high school!’ That would be so awesome.”

Former Volpe student Michael Sokolove’s book — centered on Truman’s 2011 high school premiere of the sexually charged Spring Awakening — attracted Hollywood interest as soon as it hit bookshelves. But what finally pushed Drama High into production was a surge of post-Trump-election interest in struggling working-class communities such as Bristol Township.

“I think it’s because our kids don’t come from the best environment,” Gatte said. “Some do – I’m not saying kids don’t have good families. But our district doesn’t have the advantages of others. So, how are we able to have these productions?”

With a $20,000 budget from the school district and the consent of the community, they've been able to put on edgy shows, with a same-sex kiss in Spring Awakening and salty language from leggy showgirls in Honeymoon. Because of their reputation, they sell more tickets and make a profit, supporting the productions and allowing Gatte to hire outside choreographers, musicians and vocal coaches.

“I don’t have a lot of parent volunteers,” Gatte noted, though not by way of complaint. “The parents are working two jobs, the kids are working jobs in addition to [other] extracurriculars.”

When Volpe arrived in the late 1960s to teach English and drama, he didn’t have a strategy for putting Truman on the map by staging controversial adult-themed musicals like Rent, or by making acting seem cooler than football in an otherwise ordinary, middle-class suburban school. The program just evolved, propelled by Volpe's can-do attitude.  Today, as many as 250 students take theater classes and 75 participate in the musical, with more hitting the boards for two plays in the fall, and three in the spring.

“He has this heart — you can see it a mile away,” said Shannon Harron of Bensalem, who won a key role in Spring Awakening as a ninth grader  and starred in Volpe's final production, Godspell, as a senior in 2013.

He clearly left an imprint on younger charges such as Gatte — and Sokolove, who credits Volpe with planting the idea he could become a writer. After starring in the senior musical, Once On This Island, Gatte wrote Volpe a letter on graduation day in 1993, saying that "I was going to come back and take his job.”

She returned as a teacher in 1998, just as Truman started developing its reputation for daring to stage some of Broadway’s most sophisticated musicals, beginning with Les Misérables in 2001. 

“I don’t think I was ever that nervous in my life,” Volpe recalled of the night that Cameron Mackintosh, the Broadway producer of Les Miz and The Phantom of the Opera, arrived in Levittown in a limousine to see it. “Thank God, he loved it.”

For Volpe, the magic moments continued. He met the father of the late Rent playwright Jonathan Larson at Truman's 2010 school  premiere of that show, was presented with a signed playbill from Stephen Sondheim at his 2013 retirement, and was subsequently named arts teacher of the year by Washington’s Ford’s Theatre, an honor that took him to the White House.

Volpe and Gatte, whom he describes as “like a daughter,” call and text each other almost every day. “I just saw her show the other night," he said. "I’m so proud of her, because I know how hard it is to do that."

The lights had barely dimmed on Honeymoon in Vegas when Gatte began planning next year's musical, Chicago.  This month, her students will also take the stage in a typically adventurous play, Good Boys and True, about a sex-tape scandal at a prep school. And last week, she was awaiting a rare honor: a review of Honeymoon in Vegas from Music Theater International, which licenses high school productions. “Nervous?” she asked, looking it. “A little bit.”

Meanwhile, the Truman actors are preparing to honor victims of last year’s Orlando nightclub shooting with a performance of  The Laramie Project, about the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shephard, that will be part of a documentary.

On top of all that, Gatte, who has three children, found time to appear in an NBC reality show last summer, Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge. The grueling obstacle-course competition resulted in a cracked sternum for Gatte.

“I face-planted in a pool of water,” she said. “My students loved it. They set it to music.”