When you think of school musicals, classics like Oklahoma and The Music Man may come to mind. Now, though, high schools are going beyond the same old song and dance to more contemporary - and sometimes a little risqué – shows.
Take Poudre High School's upcoming fall musical. The Fort Collins school is performing Avenue Q. In the Broadway version, the show's puppets swear, drink and have sex. This, however, is Avenue Q School Edition.
"High school kids, in particular, loved this show and they loved that it was naughty and had bad language in it," Poudre theater director Joel Smith said. "But beyond that they loved that it was talking about things high school students could relate to."
Smith calls Avenue Q an adult version of Sesame Street. The characters grapple with issues of peer pressure, sexuality and racism.
In the school edition, the characters still grapple with issues of peer pressure, sexuality and racism but most of the swear words – along with any puppet sex - are deleted. A song about online porn becomes a song about social media.
"It's about acceptance," Smith said. "It's about openness. It's about judging people by what they do rather than what they look like. And I think that part has been incorporated not just into the original show, but especially into the school edition of the show."
School editions began in the 1990s as a way to make Broadway shows accessible to the growing high school theater community.
"The idea is not to sanitize the show, or change the content," said Jason Cocovinis with New York-based Musical Theatre International, which licenses Avenue Q and its school edition. "It's to allow them to actually be performed at the high school-level."
In addition to Avenue Q, MTI also licenses school editions of Rent – minus a little sexually-explicit material; Les Misérables – minus a little time; and Sweeney Todd – minus a little gore.
"We work closely with the authors of the shows to identify what areas might prove challenging (to students)," Cocovinis said.
The idea of school editions began after high schools began clamoring for one show in particular.
"With Les Mis for example, the show was not available for performance by amateur groups - even community theaters and high schools - for many years."
The huge volume of requests for Les Misérables gave MTI officials an idea. Create an amended version that doesn't interfere with the Broadway show, but does introduce it to future generations.
"The authors, when approached, sort of saw that it was a good way to keep the medium alive," Cocovinis said. "…These performers are tomorrow's ticket buyers."
Wearing his Avenue Q tour shirt, it's very obvious that Thomas Burnett is no stranger to the show.
"I personally thought it was brilliant," the 17-year-old Poudre student said.
Burnett saw the original version off-Broadway in New York. And he thinks that the school edition holds its own.
"This production is toned down a bit," Burnett said. "It still has the main messages of friendship and love and all these really, in general, good things that the original show had."
He and his cast mates agree, there's more to Avenue Q than racy language or crude humor. A lot more, said Poudre High School senior Annabel Heacock.
"There's definitely references to drinking, to being gay, to racism, homelessness, all things that we see in our community and within Poudre High School," Heacock said. "I think talking about these issues, especially on stage, makes them really accessible to the audience."
The 17-year-old senior plays Kate Monster, a naïve kindergarten teaching assistant who falls in love with the equally naïve recent college grad, Princeton, puppeteered by 16-year-old Jack Clay.
"The show's a satire, so in this satire format, it's definitely a lot easier for people to view it and get the whole idea of what we're getting at rather than having a very serious drama-style theater production where we just talk about these things and it's very serious," Clay said. "We kind of poke fun at it."
Poudre drama teacher Joel Smith said the show's relatable nature makes it a perfect fit for schools.
"The students were very clear that there were topics in the show that they, as students in high school, felt strongly about and had opinions about and were dealing with on a daily basis," Smith said. "A lot of them talked about the fact that 'these are things that come up when we're walking down the hallways.'"
Not everyone agreed.
One parent did approach the school's principal over objections to the content. But in the end, teachers and the administration approved of the production and its overall message. The show also is a great theatrical challenge for the students.
"We always like to do things that are different," Smith said. "We always look for opportunities that are going to challenge students, that are going to prepare students for musical theater after high school - whether that's in college, or community theater, or professionally."
Plus, you can only do Oklahoma so many times…
"Well, there's nothing wrong with Oklahoma; it's a great show," Smith said. "But we don't want to limit these students to just doing Rodgers & Hammerstein… We love the idea of doing something more contemporary. Something that the students might recognize more than their parents do, instead of the other way around."