Friday Night Lights meets Glee—the incredible and true story of an extraordinary drama teacher who has changed the lives of thousands of students and inspired a town.
Why would the multimillionaire producer of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon take his limo from Manhattan to the struggling former steel town of Levittown, Pennsylvania, to see a high school production of Les Misérables? To see the show performed by the astoundingly successful theater company at Harry S Truman High School, run by its legendary director, Lou Volpe. Broadway turns to Truman High when trying out controversial shows like Rent and SpringAwakening before they move on to high school theater programs across the nation. Volpe’s students from this blue-collar town go on to become Emmy-winning producers, entertainment executives, newscasters, and community-theater founders. Michael Sokolove, a Levittown native and former student of Volpe’s, chronicles the drama director’s last school years and follows a group of student actors as they work through riveting dramas both on and off the stage. This is a story of an economically depressed but proud town finding hope in a gifted teacher and the magic of theater.
"[Truman High School] has one principal mark of distinction: [director Lou] Volpe's astoundingly successful drama program . . . He is like the winning football coach in some down-on-its-luck Ohio or Texas town - a beacon, a sign that grand achievement is possible, albeit unlikely. Schools with vastly greater financial resources, boasting higher-achieving students born to wealthier parents, cannot match the quality and accomplishments of Truman. No high school in America can." -- page 9
From March to May 2018 a TV musical-drama series briefly aired on NBC called Rise, which was about a teacher, in an economically-depressed Pennsylvania town, newly installed at his high school as the theater director for the acting club. In an attempt to breathe new life into the program he chooses a controversial show and stages it with some students who are non-traditional choices for the lead roles. Though it was short-lived (ten episodes and then canceled) I really enjoyed that show.
Happily, I found that the inspiration for said great series was sports author / journalist Michael Sokolove's book Drama High. Sokolove (class of '74) returned to his alma mater - Harry S Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania (one of the original planned post-war 'suburb' communities in the U.S.) - to chronicle the final years of service of acclaimed drama teacher Lou Volpe, who had been employed at the district since 1969 and ran their theater productions since the early 70's.
Similar to Kissinger's outstanding Friday Night Lights, with its 'up close & personal' shadowing of the Panthers' football coach and team, Drama High closely follows Volpe while also delving lightly into the lives of several of his students who are nearing their graduation but an uncertain aftermath. Levittown, like many other 'rust belt' communities in the northeastern U.S., fell on hard times in the late 80's after a few great decades - divorce, drug use, lack of solid employment, and other issues affect the area. For some of the students the drama program is the lone bright spot in their life.
I admit a certain amount of bias - I loved participating in the drama club productions during my own high school years, and Truman High is only a little over an hour away from my PA hometown. So for those two reasons I felt an immediate connection while reading Drama High. However, I also found it to be detailed, well-written and enjoyable. Sokolove has done excellent work here in presenting how one dedicated teacher can positively affect a few generations of students during his tenure.
It's difficult to be objective with this review, seeing as how I'm a former student of Lou Volpe's (1996 through 1998, years not covered in this book). I feel very strongly about Lou and I can say, without hyperbole, that he had a tremendous impact on my life - a recurring theme here. I may ramble and reminisce a little here.
What I loved discovering here is how cyclical Lou's life at Truman was, even back when he was teaching English. Students always felt the same way about him, he always developed close groups around him, he was never afraid to be open with his students and interact with them outside of the classroom (something that seems not only rare today, but frowned upon). Each new incoming class seemed to grow with him over the course of their years there as the previous classes had. There were several passages where Lou was giving advice or prepping his cast before a performance, and I couldn't suppress the smile and emotions that appeared as I heard his voice in my head, repeating a similar speech before one of my shows. You'd think him giving similar speeches over 40 years would make them sound less genuine, but they never were - you always felt like he truly cared about who he was speaking with, that he was actually listening to what you were saying, and he would never speak down to a student as an adult might. That's not to say he was all serious emotion all the time. Lou was an absolute blast to just hang out with, listening to stories or even discuss a movie or TV show with him. This was especially true when it was something he was passionate about. His love of theatre was infectious, and this book does help convey how easy it is for him to recruit students who would normally float outside of the typical theatre circles. I can still remember him first introducing Sondheim to us ("Company" was the first of many) and spending several classes just discussing how complicated and beautiful the lyrics to "Marry Me A Little" were.
That's all Lou, though. He easily gets five stars. The book as a whole?
I do feel that the subject may have been better served by someone who has no experience with Volpe, Truman, or Levittown. I personally felt that Sokolove injected a bit too much of himself, his personal feelings, and history about Levittown into this story. As a resident of Levittown in the early 70's, he paints a picture of an almost dirt-poor former steel town that he couldn't wait to get out of. I grew up there throughout the 80's and 90's. By that point, any steel plants were long-since shuttered and no one had depended on them for some time (I wasn't even aware there used to be a steel plant in the area until I was in high school). I'm also fiercely proud of where I grew up. It's not perfect, it's not as well-off as the surrounding townships or cities in Bucks County, but it felt honest, and (to sound like a much older man than I am) it gave you character. Sokolove mentions biking around the sections in the summer, bored out of his mind, waiting for school to start again. Riding my bike from friend's house to friend's house in the close, interconnected sections was one of the best things about Levittown, any time of year. I grew up in a time where everyone had video games, yet we still found plenty to do around the neighborhood outside. As we got into high school and some of us could drive, it opened the world up some more, but we never longed for our chance to escape. If anything it united us against the other well-off school districts. We were proud of where we were.
I've been back in the last few years and yes, some sections are a little more run-down than they have been. However, it still felt as if Sokolove was trying to evoke a bleaker concept to make what Lou's students accomplish seem more remarkable (or where they don't end up more tragic). It served his narrative purpose in a "Friday Night Lights" type of way, as the trade dress so desperately wants us to gather. To that end, it does the students and the city I grew up a disservice, and I felt it ultimately distracted from the greater point of the book, which is the inspiration Lou Volpe is able to instill in anyone who steps into his classroom or onto his stage.
I don’t use similes very often, but I can’t help comparing DRAMA HIGH to an onion. There are some tears, but that’s not the reason. Like an onion, it has many layers, all combining to produce the singular product. The top layer is the story of Harry S Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, particularly the theater department, possibly the best in the country. While many schools had drama clubs that did not attract many students, especially not the popular ones, such as the athletes, Truman’s Drama Club drew students from all groups–the academics, the athletes, and the artists. Almost half the students at Truman took at least one of the three theater classes before graduating. Most high school productions are those that have been playing for decades. At Truman, the program goes for the plays that have relevance for today’s society even if they may appear to be less safe and more edgy. It provides the students with a degree of sophistication above that of their contemporaries from most other high schools. Sir Cameron Mackintosh has brought Broadway dignitaries to see its shows and had it pilot Broadway blockbusters adapted for high school actors. The Drama Club did not have much financial backing, but presented five Main Show performances at the International Thespian Festival (the shows were Telemachus Clay, Equus, Pageant, The Rimers of Eldritch, and Good Boys and True). It was the first high school to produce Rent, Les Miserables, and Spring Awakening, all for Music Theater International. Obviously, it is not a typical high school Drama Club. The next layer is Lou Volpe, the teacher. Sokolove wrote “Everyone in life needs to have had at least one brilliant, inspiring teacher.” For the students involved in the theater program at Truman, Volpe is that teacher. With the support of the administration, he is able to help the students become extremely talented actors even though most had never been able to afford acting, voice, or dancing lessons. The book tells both his professional and personal stories. As I write this, I am aware that he has not read the book. Michael Sokolove, a Truman graduate, followed him for two years to get the background for DRAMA HIGH. He notes that Volpe did not want to see the book until the hard cover edition came out. My copy is an uncorrected proof. Sokolove brings the entire process necessary to produce a high school play to light as he describes the numerous steps from choosing a play, casting, rehearsing, setting it up, and actually putting it on. The third layer is psychological. We learn the stories of the students, how they react to life and to the plays, and how Volpe knows when to step in and when to let the students find their own paths, discovering their skills and aspects of themselves they hadn’t recognized or appreciated previously. As one student, Courtney Meyer, observed, “If you’re in the theater program, you’re changed. You accept. You are exposed to people and ideas that, if you were a close-minded or bigoted person, you can’t be anymore. You change without knowing it or even thinking about it necessarily.” From a sociological perspective, Levittown was hit hard by changing economic times. Chicago Steppenwolf Theater’s artistic director Martha Lavey stated “To be born into privilege is to be given the tools to replicate that privilege” regardless of the children’s intelligence or ability. Levittown was originally built as a planned community built in 1952. On the whole, the residents were middle class with some professionals mixed in. As time went on, local steel mill closed, the neighborhood deteriorated, and the income level dropped. At Truman, many families rely on food stamps, Head Start, and free lunch program. The students no longer looked toward a future of going to college and getting good jobs. Life became stagnant. The students did not perform well on standardized tests compared with those in other schools. The education layer is also very important. Visitors to Truman were greeted with trophy cases for athletics teams as well as lists of colleges graduates attend and the amounts of the scholarships they receive. Today almost everything is measured by its economic value. Nobel Prize winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz said, “All markets are shaped by laws and regulations, and unfortunately, are laws and regulations are shaped in order to create more inequality and less opportunity.” The book discusses the importance of the arts in the lives of students and how current philosophy has moved to teaching for the test rather than encouraging creativity. He notes that the poorest schools are the ones hit hardest by this. Nearly thirty percent of California public schools have no arts programs. While math and science do get priority, English is also an important subject in that it is used as a measurement. Sadly, the Common Core set of standards used in forty-six states and the District of Columbia, require fourth grade students to devote half their reading to non-fiction. By the senior year, it has jumped to seventy percent. Non-fiction includes maps, train schedules, and recipes, subjects which will not help students hear about other ideas and experiences. The effects and benefits of arts programs cannot be measured by standardized tests. In some ways, DRAMA HIGH is similar to the popular television show, “Glee,” except the students do not insert their personal lives into the program nor are they the victims of bullies. The star in one play might be in the ensemble or working stage crew in the next. Newcomers could get major roles. They don’t have the classy costumes and were focused on one play the entire semester. There was a Sue Sylvester-type character at one time who told a star wrestler that he had to chose between the team and the play. Even when Volpe arranged rehearsals so the student could do both, the coach refused to budge. This is the first book review for which I sent the draft to people because I was so sure they would love the book. I’ll be sending it to all my theater friends. I received this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The author is a friend; I gave it a very solid 4+ stars and rounded up to 5, because that’s what friends are for. So there’s your disclosure, now here’s your honest review:
Many features reporters (including this one) have delved into the “making of the high school play” story as a means of telling an epic narrative, intending to capture something fraught and beautiful about teenagers and teachers and dedication and art. In the narrative, it is essential to note that the arts are always on the losing end of the public-education equation; marginalized by our cultural fixation on athletics, first, and quantifiable “results” (testing), as a close second.
“Drama High” is so much more. Mostly it’s a profile of a man – the indomitable Lou Volpe, head of the theater department at Truman High School, in the original (now far faded) American tract-house suburb of Levittown, outside Philadelphia. Anyone who has a passing interest in theater or education or the world of teenagers will be interested in this book. It doesn’t just follow the “making of” a school play or two. It’s an examination of why something so special was allowed to thrive in a place where everything else was in a state of decline. There’s a lot I found fascinating about this book, not the least of which is Sokolove’s ability to weave in details of his own life (Sokolove had Volpe as a teacher 40 years ago) without once intruding on the larger story. It’s a tender book, but it’s also a tough peeling-back of some of the more futile details of everyday life in a declining economy, where mediocrity rules all things. Except in this particular drama department, which is almost brutally and even refreshingly meritocratic.
There’s a lot to talk to about in this book – I think it would be a great choice for book clubs that periodically tire of novels. Two things I thought were really smart:
• Early on, while auditioning boys for a play that will deal with some frank sexual content, Sokolove examines one of the great heartbreaks of high school drama club: Although the theater life has forever been a refuge for gay males (Volpe included), it cruelly rejects them as leading men. This is, on some level, horrifyingly unfair and yet, when you think about it, completely logical for the determined director who seeks perfection in all things. But is it right? I would have liked to read more about that.
• One of the book’s most intelligent analyses is when we learn the 10 most popular plays and musicals performed today in American high schools. The list has barely moved a stone since you or I or anybody was in high school. While Volpe and his kids take on the honor and challenge of being the first U.S. high school to mount a production of “Spring Awakening,” everyone else is still doing the same shows they were doing 20, 30, 40 and, in some cases (“You Can’t Take It With You”), 70 years ago. As Sokolove writes, this is as ludicrous as the school football coach running a playbook from the 1940s. Yet schools persist in choosing safe, time-tested musicals as a way to avoid controversy – and, consequently, we lose all the great teachable moments that come in staging theater that provokes questions or makes its audience (and cast) see things in a new way. Another round of “The Music Man” and “Our Town” does nobody any favors, least of all our kids. Why is high school theater preserved in amber?
A great teacher, in high school, can be like an author who tells you some of what your own coming story might be. Lou Volpe, who ran the drama program at Truman High School in Levittown, PA for more than forty years, is such a teacher – one whom, even though he has retired, has to be referred to in the present tense, because his impact, on those forty years of students, is ongoing and life-long. His productions of SPRING AWAKENING and LES MISERABLES were so fine that they convinced their producers to license them to high schools. And he was so popular – understood by the kids he taught as a life-changer even as their lives were being changed – that half the students in the school took at least one drama course. He chose tough plays, dark musicals (Sondheim was his god); if a show interested him, he found a way to do it, and he found the right kids for the parts. Such teachers are rare; they deserve our notice, and rarely get it. But now Lou Volpe has. Michael Sokolove, a student of his in the early 70’s and now a writer for the New York Times Magazine, went back to Truman, spent two years there, and emerged with a portrait of Mr. Volpe that is, at the same time, the story of a town through time, of how we educate our kids, of the transformative power of theatre, itself. It’s also a story of Sokolove, of the family he came from, of the man he’s become; DRAMA HIGH feels like a book that was necessary for him to write. Because he is such a fine writer, his book, for me, felt necessary to read.
I’ve pretty much told everyone that I know that they should read this book. If that isn’t the ultimate compliment, I don’t know what is. While the book focuses mainly on Lou Volpe, the incredible theater director of Harry S Truman High in Levittown PA, it’s also about the town, the people, their struggles, the disappearing middle class, the state of the education system, and the importance of the arts. The author, Michael Sokolove, was a student of Lou Volpe’s and grew up in Levittown. I’ve seen some criticism that he inserts himself and his opinions into the book too much, but I think his firsthand knowledge and history give a unique perspective to the subject matter, making it all the richer. He writes with obvious care for the people and the place, and he is a great storyteller. I found myself completely invested in these underdog schoolkids who, despite being part of a severely underfunded district and having numerous personal obstacles, are able, year after year, to create a level of art in the theater that is nationally recognized. Sokolove makes some interesting observations about the disparity between privileged (i.e. wealthier) towns/school districts and “blue-collar” towns like Levittown - in both the advantages and disadvantages they afford to the students and the resulting differences in how children are parented. (I can see plenty of fodder in this book for book clubs to discuss!)
If you ever believed that one person couldn’t make a difference, read this book. It is filled with testimonials of former students of Lou Volpe’s who directly attribute their success to him. While it’s clear that Lou Volpe has a love and talent for the theater, his biggest gift is seeing the potential in these teenagers - many of whom have never been told that they are good at anything - demanding excellence from them, and, simply, caring for their well-being.
The nonfiction books that I often enjoy the most are ones that expand my worldview in some way, whether it is through me learning about a subject that I knew nothing about, forcing me to think about issues that I do not have to deal with in my own life, or otherwise challenging my assumptions and beliefs. But I’ll admit that I loved this book because it confirmed what I’ve always believed: that what teenagers (and people, in general) want most is for someone to really see and believe in them, that an excellent and caring teacher/mentor/coach holds the power to change a child’s life, and that the arts in education can enrich lives in ways that cannot be quantified.
This book is pretty much exactly what the title and subtitle would lead you to believe. If you like Broadway musicals, were a theater nerd, or like an underdog story this will likely work for you. I loved learning about Lou Volpe, a man who had no theatrical training and managed to create a highly successful theater program in a school that didn't have much going for it. Even more amazing, he created that program as as safe space for students from all walks of life who may not have safety or success in any other part of their life. Sokolove managed to create a story that was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. It's funny and poignant. I left the story hopeful for a world that still has teachers who can make a lasting difference in the lives of their students.
I felt like the topic of this book--meaningful and transformative high school experiences and teachers--was a five-star topic, done in a three-star way. (And I think I liked it as much as did because of the difference the theater productions of which I was a part in high school made to me. I think if you did theater in high school, and if you loved it, you will at least like this book because it will take you right back there.) Drama High is the story of the theater program at Truman High is Levittown, Pennsylvania, and the teacher who single-handily made it the unlikely and tremendous success that it is, Lou Volpe. The trouble is that the author was one of Volpe's students and it's not so much that he can't disguise his adoration, and more that he just can't stop inserting himself into the narrative. The author's adoration might be warranted, but we've really only the author's word for it, because he doesn't really let anyone else get more than two words in edgewise, and it gets tiresome, fast. It also makes it a bit hard to take the author seriously, which is a shame when it comes to the intercalary material about the state of arts education in America, and the case to be made for its continued, deliberate, and fuller inclusion in the curricular and extracurricular offerings of our schools. Could have been better, but not bad, all the same.
Really enjoyed the book. I'm from Levittown so I felt like I really understood what went on during much of the time Mr. Volpe taught. I did not attend Truman but being a part of the community, I knew how much he and his troupes were revered.
Of course, I started watching the show that was inspired by this book and found out that not only was it a book, but also that it is set in Levittown which is very close to where I live! The writing was really excellent. It’s very different from the show as it definitely focuses more on theatre in general and the shows. It did get into the lives of those involved which was very interesting and really gave you a glimpse of the town this was set in as well.
If you love the arts, if you've had kids involved in the arts (all 3 of ours were involved, especially in theater), if you believe in the transformative power of a teacher, coach, mentor...this book is for you.
Ahh this took me BACK. If you ever did theater in high school or community theater - this could be fun - otherwise - I imagine it would be a hard no. Apparently there is (although recently retired) prolific high school drama teacher (Lou Volpe) in a poor middle class suburb outside Philly who puts on these incredible professional level plays and musicals. His notoriety is not based on large budgets or big stages - apparently he is just an incredible teacher. So much so that several Broadway productions were first showcased at the high school level by him including Les Mes, Rent and Spring Awakening. The book is a gushing homage to him and a tribute to the power of theater for teenagers who are leaning to express themselves.
Reviewers have called it “…part ‘Glee,’ part ‘Hoop Dreams’” and “’Glee’ meets ‘Friday Night Lights.’” It reminds me of “Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School” (1991), a true story about a journalism teacher in New York City written by Samuel G. Freedman. It reminds me of the film “Freedom Writers” (2007), the true story of high school students and their diaries in Long Beach, California.
Author Michael Sokolove, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, returns to his alma mater – Harry S. Truman High School in struggling Levittown, Pennsylvania -- to tell the incredible story of its legendary theatre program and director Lou Volpe.
Truman HS is not a wealthy school. It does not have a great auditorium. It does not even have a music program any longer. But Truman HS is known for mounting some of the best high school theatre productions in the country.
This is the program professionals from Broadway turn to when they want to find out if high school students can perform cutting edge shows, “Rent” for example, before they offer them to high schools nationwide.
Sokolove tells this story through the eyes of Volpe but also through the eyes of the students who learn to be the best they can be – not from some prescribed list of Common Core standards or from preparing for high-stakes testing – but from committing to something bigger than they are and seeing it through.
Yes, this is the story of an incredibly successful theatre program, but it is also the story of all those totally dedicated and committed educators who recognize they can change the lives of teenagers…and who actually do that.
This is a book about a small town with an outstanding theater program. At the helm for forty years has been a teacher that has shaped the culture in his community surrounding theater.
Lou Volpe started teaching at Truman High School in 1973. His impact on the lives of his students is reflected in the fact that a former student wrote this book over thirty years after he sat in his class.
Volpe has pushed the envelope with the productions he puts on. But, more importantly, he has challenged his students to be the best that they can be as they create something unique and all their own.
His performances have been attended by Broadway's elite producer and his program has helped to shape performances of Les Miz and Rent (for the high school stage) for an organization that strives to make theater accessible to everyone.
I would love to see a performance by these kids. It all sounds so impressive the way they immerse themselves in the roles. More impressive is Volpe as a person. He is candid with his students and tells them what most adults wouldn't for fear of crushing their souls. He brings out the best in his kids by opening their minds to possibility. What a teacher.
A love letter to a great teacher, high school theater, and drama kids. A wonderful, inspiring, and necessary read in this time of standardized testing and data mining. A passionate argument for the need for arts education in schools. I loved this book.
"I'm not here to make you a great actor. That's not my job. The reasons you should be taking this class are far more important. I want you to gain confidence, learn something about life, grow up a little bit. I want to help you see who you are."- Lou Volpe, Truman High School - Theater I Class.
The author Michael Sokolove was one of Lou Volpe's English students back in the early 1970's at the beginning of Volpe's career in education. Four decades later, he returned to tell the story of how this teacher inspired his students and the community of Levittown, PA, by creating a first class theater program in a working class town. The book was published in 2013 and concludes with Lou Volpe's retirement from teaching. In March of 2018, the television show Rise, inspired by this book, debuted on NBC with trans actor Ellie Desautels among the cast members.
The book is more than just an homage from a former student to a teacher who inspired him. There is a lot of background contained in these pages having to do with the genesis of the community itself and the students and families who live there. Levittown, PA, is one of the communities that sprung up after World War II when there was a desperate need for housing and the GI Bill made homeownership possible for returning veterans. Sokolove's father Leonard was one such returning veteran who received both housing and educational benefits, getting an undergraduate degree and a law degree following the war. Sokolove doesn't shy away from talking about how William Levitt's creation of post-war suburban America was for whites only, a topic discussed in depth in The Color of Law. The working class community of Levittown is still predominately white, with a small population of Hispanics in residence now. The industries that once employed many who lived in the town are now shuttered. Volpe's students come from families who are struggling in a variety of ways.
Lou Volpe was not involved in theater as a high school student himself. He started out at 21 as an English teacher at the high school and applied to be the assistant Theater Director. He was given the job of Theater Director when the current incumbent left the school and from that point forward became a self taught theater producer and director. Throughout the book there are references to Volpe's love for Stephen Sondheim and particularly the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which he has seen performed more than 25 times. For him, the play is life changing. He clearly wants to create those life changing moments for his students.
It is quite remarkable that such an underfunded theater program was revered by those on Broadway who came to admire and respect what Volpe was able to do with his program and his students. Musical Theatre International (MTI), which licenses plays for production, tapped Lou Volpe to adapt several Broadway musicals for the high school stage. Among them were Les Miserables, Rent and Spring Awakening.Sokolove spent two years researching this book and in those years was there for Truman's productions of Good Boys and True and Spring Awakening (which was re-created in the season finale of Rise on May 18th.) Some of the most interesting parts of this book are his detailed descriptions of the creative process and the student actors.
As a theater student myself, everything about this book resonated with me. I took four years of Drama classes at William Byrd High School in Vinton, VA, along with my best friend Jeff. (We were the only two students in Drama III and Drama IV.) While neither of us ended up as Broadway actors, we both gained a lot from our love of the theater and our pursuit of mastery within it. And that is really the goal that Lou Volpe has from the beginning for his students.
I loved everything about this book. I can see how it inspired a television show in a time when arts education is seen as optional and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Many of us understand that arts education is everything. What would humanity be without the arts?
In the early to mid seventies, my basketball team at Pennsbury High School, in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, had legendary battles with the team at Woodrow Wilson High School, in neighboring Levittown. Gene Massari, the coach that led the team to 8 league titles in 10 years, stepped down, the school changed its name to Harry S. Truman, the local steel mill began its slow walk to decimation, and the school never again had any sustained success in basketball or high school athletics. The students at Truman weren't expected to be very successful upon graduation. Pennsbury High School had students from mill families, but also families from the affluent growing communities in Lower Makefield and Yardley. Pennsbury enjoyed consistent athletic success in all sports, and also was known for its strong music and theater programs. I was amazed to learn, through this book, the inspirational story of Lou Volpe and his years leading the nationally recognized theater program at Truman High. I have met educators at Truman and admired the pride they had in their school, working with students that had to overcome so many obstacles each day, to make a life for themselves after high school. This school, from an economically depressed, diverse community, was not the place you would expect to find one of the most respected high school theater programs in the country. The book by Michael Sokolove, who was one of Volpe's former students back in the 70's, is an account of his last year in the school in 2013, and the tremendous influence he has had on a variety of students through his years as an educator. Many of his students have gone on to a variety of successful careers in the theater, and his last year was just a finishing chapter to his legacy. In this crazy year of book bans, unsettling school board meetings, and a general lack of respect and understanding for what teachers have been through during the pandemic, this book is a great tribute to teachers who accomplish extraordinary things every year, against all odds.
If ever an author wanted to write a book with me as its target audience, this would be it. Part memoir, part teacher biography, part educational ethnography, part sociology of suburban decline, part theater celebration, it hits all the right marks. And, it's about a local Pennsylvania school!
Although the narrative thread of the book tells the story of two school productions (Good Boys and True and the high school debut of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening), the book moves back and forth in time as Sokolove (a former Truman student) describes the astonishing career of Lou Volpe, the theater director at Truman High School in Levittown, PA.
I've had this book sitting in a pile of to-read books for several years (it was published in 2013). I'm not sure I'd have picked it up anytime soon had I not binge-watched the TV show Rise a couple of weeks ago. Rise is based loosely on Volpe's story (English teacher in a down-on-its-luck town gets job as theater director, decides to put on Spring Awakening, all kinds of problems ensue) and I LOVED watching it. The teen actors in the show are astonishing. As soon as I finished the series, I dug out Drama High and determined to read it. I'm glad I did. I wish I'd read it years ago.
School aren't easy places to work, but students constantly surprise you and teachers CAN make a difference. With vision, hard-work, patience, courage, and tenacity, magic is possible, even in the most unlikely places. I needed to be reminded of this.
A quick and interesting read about an awesome theater program at a high school that is about an hour from where I live. Who knew? Exactly!
Truman High School is located in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levittown is a prime example of an up and coming, middle class town that stopped moving up once the manufacturing industries left the area. Levittown is very conservative, white and blue collar. It is surrounded by many wealthier communities, which makes it the brunt of jokes from time to time. But what Levittown has that almost no other school can rival in the whole country is an awesome theater teacher, Tom Volpe, who created an amazing theater program for the school that has given it national acclaim over many years.
With so much emphasis on testing in the core subjects, the arts are usually the first programs to get cut from a school curriculum, which is unfortunate, because the arts, and in particular the theater, teach empathy to students and provides them with insights into issues that will make them better stewards of the world.
I highly recommend this book. It shows the difference that one person can make on both an individual and community level. Plus, it gets into some interesting details about how Broadway plays get to be performed in schools, etc. All in all, a fun book that is also very inspiring.
First of all I want to say I am happy this book was written! The book was good but was not deep and only grazed the surface of what could of been. The teacher is inspiring and we need more teachers like him. I didn’t like that they talked about cutting language from plays etc. that’s a no no/ you need to seek permission to do that.
I am glad the book inspires the TV show Rise! I hope it expands on the students lives. Like one the the actors from the show said, “it’s like Friday Night Lights for Theatre.” I just don’t think I will remember the young people from the book and that’s a shame. So all in all good book, recommended but don’t think too hard.
Interesting look at an inspiring teacher who created and ran a super successful theatre program in a high school in a low income area. I love how the students clearly loved and learned so much from their teacher, Lou Volpe, and I like the behind-the-scenes of how the school put on their productions. It's a lovely tribute to a great teacher, written by one of his former students. 3.5 stars.
Damning indictment of the state of the US education system and inspiring story of the impact that one good teacher can have on a person’s life. A profile of a town, a teacher, and the economic failures of government, Drama High is a thoroughly personal non-fiction work that will likely endure longer than the already cancelled TV series it inspired.
As a former theatre kid, I ate this UP. It's a beautiful story of the passion and the purpose that a teacher gave to his students across many decades. Heartwarming and sweet and a wonderful work to dedicate to an educator that is so important to so many people.
Enjoyable read. What an amazing teacher. Really enjoyed learning about his past, the plays, the kids, and their relationships with their teacher and the plays. Book lacked structure and jumped around...felt disjointed.
This book is much more than meets the eye. The story of an amazing teacher and the power of the arts to lift up a struggling town. Echoes of Hillbilly Elegy, but without all the heavy handedness. An excellent read.
I loved this book!! As a teacher and avid theatre goers and parent of a past theatre student it brought home so many points and helped me recall many memories!! I cried through much of it due to the intensity and real world application!
Drama High does for high school theater what Friday Night Lights did for high school football. Lou Volpe managed to create a distinguished theater program at Truman High School, a school that doesn't have much else going for it. Lou Volpe spent four decades at Truman High School creating a nationally acclaimed theater program. Truman High School Theater had the distinct honor to pilot Les Miserables for the high school stage in 2001. Cameron Mackintosh himself even came to see the show. He wanted to see for himself, before he gave his blessing to allow the rights to be marketed via MTI, that a high school could do justice to Les Miserables. A few years later, after the success of Les Miserables, Truman High School was given the honor to be the first high school to perform RENT. Lou Volpe did not shy away from mature and challenging material trusting that his students to dig deep to craft and shape mesmerizing performances. Sokolove spends some time, in his research, following Volpe's direction of a dramatic play, Good Boys and True, a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa which tackles some weighty issues including social class and homosexuality all wrapped in a a prep school scandal. The school administration trusted Volpe's instincts and his sensitivity to the subject matter giving him the freedom to challenge his students with meaty content that other schools wouldn't touch. Truman, again was called on again to pilot the jarring musical, Spring Awakening which won the Tony for best musical in 2007.
I was more convinced than I already was that there is a tremendous amount of merit in theater education. Most of Volpe's students never act again after high school, but the life-long confidence earned in his classroom and on stage is worth its weight in gold. It takes just one good teacher to elevate the kids higher than they thought they could go. Great teachers change lives!
Also, it was serendipitous to discover that the new show, Rise is inspired by Drama High. I had no idea until I finished the book!
In Drama High, Michael Sokolove returns to his high school, now called Harry S. Truman High School, to profile drama teacher Lou Volpe, who, despite budget cuts and a flagging economy, has brought acclaim and popularity to his classes and spawned several generations of drama students. While never fawning, Sokolove makes it clear that Volpe has had a disproportionate effect on many of his students, including the author, who never took a drama class. By pushing his students to go deep into the material of plays like Good Boys and True, the main one covered in the book, and the controversial Spring Awakening, he takes many of them out of their comfort zones into something even better.
Sokolove contrasts what's happened to Levittown since its founding with its current conditions (for example, of the five giant swimming pools, four have now been filled in) as well as Truman's drama program with competing schools. Along the way, he also tells Volpe's story of coming out (both to himself, his then-wife and, though never as explicitly, to those who know him) as well as his path toward living and breathing theater. While focusing in on a specific school and one extraordinary teacher, Sokolove also paints an often disarming picture of what modern public schooling has become, a numbers game geared toward test scores. Against that backdrop, Volpe's achievements become all the more impressive, and the wealth offered by the very rigorous involvement required turns out to mean more than can be measured on any test.
Sokolove intersperses the story of the two years he spent at Truman High with interviews of former Volpe students, and, though brief, their dedication and vivid remembrances of Volpe speak volumes. A fascinating read, which in some ways reminded me of Joe Miller's look at a school's chess team, Cross-X, especially in its underdog element. The students themselves are book smart and street smart and their outlooks and personal dramas, and especially the way they see their theater involvement impacting their futures, stands out. In an age where we so often read about mothers like the ones in Emily Matchar's The New Domesticity, who want to tightly control their children's environments, seeing kids grow up in much tougher circumstances but being both realistic and often striving for more (the scene where Volpe chastises a 23-year-old former student for resting in being "comfortable" is wonderful, not to mention a message that readers of all ages can take to heart) is refreshing. Sokolove owns his own biases, but is never too fawning or matter-of-fact. He is an interested observer who situations Volpe's dedication as rare but never saintly. Highly recommended.