There’s a reason why kids aged 10 to 12 are known as tweens. “A middle school person is really stuck halfway in the world of the child and halfway in the world of the adult,” says Rosemary Newcott, Alliance Theatre’s Sally J. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth and the director of Middle School Musical. “They want to be teenagers. They want to be in high school. [Yet] they’re sort of in this place where they’re really perceived as children — but they don’t want to be called that.”
The idea for the world premiere musical came to Newcott last season, when she was working on André Benjamin’s Class of 3000, which featured a cast of adults playing middle school kids. When real middle school kids in the Alliance’s Junior Dramaturgs program analyzed the script and turned in their treatments, Newcott was blown away.
“They did all this background work on the play — wrote down the character development, their impressions of what the piece is and what it’s trying to say, and drew costume renderings,” she says. “It was from the middle school perspective, and I [began] realizing that their voice is not heard that much in the productions that they see.”
That realization prompted Newcott to propose the Alliance develop a world premiere musical about middle school students for its 2009-2010 season. “I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to develop a show that’s about them and deals with them,’” Newcott says.
Although loosely inspired by a certain high school musical, Newcott stresses how different Middle School Musical is from the Disney blockbuster. Like Second City comedy shows, it will have a loose storyline that ties skits together, but it’s “improvisation-based, so [kids] can actually participate in it and be a part of it.” Tweens also provided much of the material on which the show is based.
“We sent out questionnaires to middle school kids about what interests them and even had them write a song about ‘Why I hate middle school and why I love middle school’ and collected materials [to] use in our rehearsal process,” Newcott says. “It will really reflect their lives.”
When asked, Newcott says there’s not much she remembers about being a middle school student in New Jersey except what a terrible blow it was to be a low-ranking freshman in high school after being “top of the heap” in eighth grade. “It’s scary. They’re still going to be in the same house, but they’re moving into different social environments.
“It’s a difficult place to be: You’re in-between and you’re not quite sure who you want to be yet,” she continues. “I don’t know if there’s anyone who would say, ‘Yeah, I’m so excited to be in middle school.’ Have you ever heard that?”
She adds with a laugh, “I don’t ever want to go back, that’s for sure.”