Putting aside my deep skepticism that a high school in a small, conservative town would let a production of Spring Awakening get as far as Stanton High’s has, Rise does a solid job confronting a major issue today: censorship of the arts in schools.
Ideally, we’d imagine, we’re beyond the kind of censorship depicted in this episode, where a school comes in and requires an art program to make all kinds of arbitrary changes for some amorphous greater good. But stories of such censorship still hit the headlines, always framed as protection of the children. What ultimately ends up happening, as shown in this episode, is that the kids become incredibly frustrated by the creative limitations. They feel like what they’ve been doing is wrong, and are expected to change for reasons not fully explained to them.
In Rise’s case, this involves singing the iconic Spring Awakening number “Totally Fucked” as “Totally Hosed.” (Hey, they finally got around to it!) Other numbers, like the heartwrenching abuse duet “The Dark I Know Well,” also face the axe. It is, to be plain, totally a mess.
Under pressure from the principal, Lou (Josh Radnor) agrees to make changes to his students’ production of Spring Awakening. This includes the aforementioned “Totally Hosed,” but also involves removing moments seen as too sexual or suggestive.
This includes, of course, the gay kiss scene during “The Word of Your Body (Reprise),” which Simon (Ted Sutherland) is heartbroken to see cut. He and Jeremy (Sean Grandillo) have been through the ringer, but ultimately, Simon committed to make the scene work, no matter the consequences. Seeing it cut is too much for him to handle.
“We believed in what you were trying to do,” he yells at Lou. “We showed up, stayed late. We gave it our all. We trusted you.”
This goes to the heart of the problem with such censorship: What’s framed as protective of the kids is almost always a stressor and detriment to them. Simon has a full-scale meltdown on the stage, even throwing a microphone, because he’s being told what he’s put so much effort into will come to nothing. It’s unhealthy at best, and actively scarring at worst.
That said, and I hate to beat a dead horse, but there is absolutely no way these conversations would be happening at this late stage of the game. Rise has staked a lot of its narrative heat on this last-minute censorship. We’re left at the end of the episode wondering what could happen next, and whether this production of Spring Awakening will happen as planned.
The problem is, it’s absolutely going to happen as planned. A censored musical going on as censored violates the very spirit of this show, one of rebellion and, er, rising above the challenges. The only question that remains is, what punishment will the team face for not doing as told?
We’ll find out in the season finale of Rise, which will air Tuesday, May 15, at 9 p.m. on NBC.