If I had one problem with Glee and I had about 2,000, but let’s pretend for the moment like I just had one it was that the school’s budget for the glee club quickly and wildly became a non-issue. We were meant to believe in the first season that the glee club was hanging on by a thread, that money was scarce. But as the show went on, and the production numbers got more elaborate, the illusion of budgetary restriction was shattered.
By the time Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and substitute teacher Holly Holiday (Gwyneth Paltrow) were performing a fully staged “Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago, all expectation of realism seemed to be out the window.
Rise is all about realism, to the point of painful earnestness. You feel every single thing these characters are going through at all times, and that includes the slow tightening of the noose that is money. This applies not just to Stanton High’s production of Spring Awakening, which Lou (Josh Radnor) and his co-director Tracey (Rosie Perez) are quickly realizing will have to be done on shoestrings, but to nearly every character’s home life as well.
When she’s not starring in the show, Lillette Suarez (Auliʻi Cravalho) is working a waitress job at the same diner as her mom so they can make ends meet. Student lighting designer Maashous (Rarmian Newton) is homeless. And Lou is trying to do it all, without the money to do it.
Initially, Lou’s plan for the budget is to not ask for anything at the school district budget meeting just give a nice speech, make good after that first episode bonfire. (Side note: Thrilled that the characters actually have to deal with the consequences of that absurd fire. It was a great emotional moment, but making the theatre department pay for the losses is a great way to underline the budget issues.) Tracey, on the other hand, would rather take a more direct approach.
During the meeting, and against Lou’s request, she rails at the board, arguing that they deserve funds if the football team is going to spend over $100,000 on a Jumbotron. She asks for $14,000; they get $750. But it’s a start, and it proves that Tracey is the Red Oni to Lou’s Blue Oni. She may be abrasive, but she gets shit done.
The moment of the episode, however, has nothing to do with money, or Lou, or Tracey. It’s all about Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth), the former star-turned-supporting player. She’s the daughter of Stanton High’s philandering football coach, and thus has a few issues of her own. Lou shoving her out of the spotlight in favor of Lillette the daughter of her father’s lover, no less is enough to push her over the edge.
At first, we see her rebelling, being too big in group scenes and generally being bratty in rehearsal. But a conversation with Lou about what she can do with the character of Ilse, generally one of the darkest characters in Spring Awakening, brings out something new in her: a fire. She channels every emotion in her being and sings the hell out of finale number “The Song of Purple Summer.”
Director Rosemary Rodriguez makes smart use of diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound here. When Gwen first starts performing, she does so live, her voice just easing its way into the words. When we cut away to an episode-ending montage of the other characters, the audio switches to the studio version, like a soundtrack illustrating their lives. Then finally, we’re brought back to Gwen’s live performance, as she powers through tears in the final notes of “The Song of Purple Summer.” Suddenly, the show’s most nonsensical song (seriously, even former cast members don’t know what the song means) becomes a powerhouse revelatory moment for a young woman going through the toughest part of her young life.
On Glee, you might imagine Rachel Berry belting the hell out of it, with no live vocals, and cutting between performing under a spotlight on stage and singing while walking through McKinley High School’s halls, the studio version keeping her voice consistent throughout. Rise is a more modest show, with more of an idea of budget, and it’s all the artistically richer for it.
The next episode of Rise will air Tuesday, March 27, at 9/8con NBC.