entertainment

NBC's 'Rise,' inspired by book about Bucks County theater program, accused of 'straight-washing' main character

Nick Vadala, Staff Writer

Updated: Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 7:17 AM

Rise featuring Josh Radnor as Lou Mazzuchelli, Ellie Desautels as Michael Hallowell, Auli'i Cravalho as Lilette Suarez, Shannon Purser as Annabelle, Sean Grandillo as Jeremy Middle, Ted Sutherland as Simon Saunders, Amy Forsyth as Gwen Strickland

From the game itself to the pre-show performers, Philadelphia dominated Super Bowl LII. And thanks to NBC’s forthcoming series Rise, that influence extended to the Big Game’s commercials as well.

It’s a show of confidence that NBC put so much advertising might behind Rise during one of the biggest television events of the year. But the show is not without controversy.

Premiering March 13, Rise is a TV musical drama in the vein of Glee. The series tells of a passionate drama teacher in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Stanton (actually Brooklyn and White Plains, N.Y.) as his students prepare to mount a production of the controversial 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening. The show stars How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, and Moana’s Auli’I Cravalho, as well as a number of new faces who make up much of the student body.

The program is based on the 2013 book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by former Inquirer and Daily News reporter Michael Sokolove. That book follows high school drama teacher Lou Volpe, who is known for his work at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown. Volpe, who retired in 2013, taught at the school for more than 40 years, and gained national acclaim for piloting such classics as Les Misérables, Rent, and Spring Awakening for high schoolers.

Rise, however, has generated controversy since producers introduced it to audiences during the Television Critics Association press tour last month over what critics have called the “straight-washing” of the Volpe-inspired character, Lou Mazzuchelli. Volpe is a gay man who came out later in life. The Volpe-inspired character, played by Radnor, is a straight family man.

In interviews, show runner and co-creator Jason Katims has said the difference in sexual orientation between the characters came from his needing to “make it … kind of my own story.” Critics have interpreted his comments as “straight privilege” and calling for boycotts of the show, or petitioning for a rewrite to make the Mazzuchelli character a gay man.

“If the show’s creator can’t write a gay character, then he’s not a very good writer,” one petition author, Sarah Rose, said via a release. “Not only did NBC miss a chance to kindly represent a community that is misunderstood and misrepresented so often in media, but they practically slapped the actual man in the face by changing a huge part of who he is.”

A Levittown native, Sokolove, 61, attended Truman when it was known as Woodrow Wilson High School, and had Volpe as an English teacher. Sokolove, who is based near Washington and writes for the New York Times Magazine, says that while he understands the questions some people may have about the series, he cannot support the outrage over it, considering that it hasn’t yet aired.

“That’s just wrong,” he says. “It’s like people who censor books they haven’t read because they heard something about it. Watch the show. If you like it, keep watching it. If you don’t like it, or you have these objections, don’t watch it.”

Sokolove, though credited in the opening titles for the show, did not make the book into a series. That work fell principally to Katims, who previously worked on series including Friday Night Lights (based on Philadelphia author and former Inquirer writer H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 book) and Parenthood.

Like those shows, Rise is merely inspired by Drama High and not an adaptation of its source material, Sokolove says. As a result, the decisions about the Volpe-inspired character belonged to Katims, who Sokolove says was not required to strictly follow the book.

“The show does not exist without the book. It is inspired by a teacher and a town and a story,” Sokolove says. “The show tracks some of those things, but the characters were Jason’s to create.”

Speaking to the LGBT publication the Advocate, Volpe mirrored Sokolove’s interpretation, though he said initially that he assumed his fictional TV counterpart would also be gay. Now, he said, he hopes viewers will give the show a chance.

Marley Shelton plays the wife of 'Rise' main character Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor)

“For me, ‘straight-washing’ the character was never an issue, because he is not based on me. As an artist, I respect their vision for the show,” he says, adding that Katims made it “very clear” that the book would inspire the series rather than serve as an exact basis for it.

Even with the decision to make the Mazzuchelli character a straight man, Sokolove says, Rise serves as a good example of LGBT-friendly programming. Rise producers Jeffrey Selle and Flody Suarez agree, having issued a statement indicating that the show “portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories,” and that it “worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ story lines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.” Producers added that the criticisms leveled against the show are “against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals.”

Those story lines, Sokolove says, deal with characters like Simon, who comes out as gay during the production of Spring Awakening in the series. Michael, a transgender student, meanwhile, fights to use the boys’ changing room at school. Mazzuchelli’s sister-in-law in the series is a lesbian, which the Advocate reports is “not a central plot point but an unremarked-upon reality.”

“There is a diverse set of people represented, and they’re not just represented to be represented,” Sokolove says. “They help serve the story. … [The show] takes chances. Maybe it didn’t take the chance you wanted it to take, but if you want it to look the way you want it to look, then go write a TV show.”

Sokolove says he is at work on his fourth book, which deals with the University of Louisville’s basketball recruiting scandals and is slated for release in the fall.

Nick Vadala, Staff Writer

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