ITHACA, N.Y. — After Ithaca High School canceled its spring musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” many in the community were left wondering what would become of the Ithaca City School District’s Theater Department.
The student activist group Students United Ithaca fought for “Hunchback” to be shut down in order to pave the way for a new production; one that would be more inclusive for all, especially for students of color.
Following several board meetings, national media attention, and a string of student-directed threats, the ICSD announced “Hairspray” as the high school’s new musical. Along with a new show, the administration also brought in a new director: Joey Steinhagen, founder of the local theatre company Running To Places, who was highly requested by the students.
Although some members of the community saw the production as an ordinary school musical, many of the students and adults who were apart of “Hairspray” believed this show was unique and should not be overlooked.
One of these adults includes Steinhagen, who wrote in the show’s program: “Hairspray tells the story of young people who identify a racial and social injustice that they are experiencing. They come together, rise up, and tear down the walls that divide — and they do it with joy and love, through music and dance — in pursuit of a more just and beautiful future for all. This is the story we are here to tell. We have worked to tell it to the theatre students, to the entire student body, to the people across our community, and indeed, to the rest of the nation that is now listening in, too.”
Many cast members echoed Steinhagen’s message of youth empowerment.
“I want people to see how students can make a change. That we can rise up and do something to change the inequalities in our school system and in our home,” said Dani Copeland (Amber Von Tussle).
Students also found this show critical for the ICSD because it follows publicized casting controversy, in which a white student was cast as the lead role of Esmeralda, a French Romani gypsy. Many of these students described the musical as the beginning of a “movement for inclusion” and a step in the right direction for the school district.
“After doing theater in middle school, and with this movement, how could I not be a part of this show? I hope people watching realize theater should be a place for everyone,” said Zoe Klausner (Penny Pingleton).
More cast members agreed that theater is a community, with many deeming everyone involved as a “second family.” Even students who attend different schools were welcomed to audition for the musical.
“Although I don’t go to IHS, I agree with many of the points made by Students United Ithaca. One of the reasons I joined the show is because I wanted to start bridging the gap between our two schools,” said Lehman Alternative Community School student Jacob Ellis (Mr. Spritzer).
Many first-time theater students also felt encouraged to audition after Steinhagen emphasized he would make the show as inclusive as possible. At an informational meeting during the week of auditions, the director told students to simply “walk through the door” and that no one would be cut from the show. Over sixty students auditioned and no one was cut.
“I heard they were taking everyone so I thought I could do this,” said first-time IHS theater student Molly Spackman.
IHS athletes were equally as excited to join the “Hairspray” family. Jordanny Cuevas-Marte, an IHS basketball player who was cast in the show, directed a message to his fellow athletes: “I hope they see me on stage enjoying myself because life isn’t just about basketball and football.”
Four members of Students United Ithaca were also cast in the show. They all agreed that the high school’s production of “Hairspray” is the beginning of a movement for inclusion within the ICSD, and the start of a larger discussion about race in theater.
Eamon Nunn-Makepeace (Seaweed J. Stubbs) said the casting choice made by the last director was racially insensitive, and that “Hairspray” didn’t make the same mistake. Ari Cummings (Link Larkin) explained how all his friends of color who were in the show had such a great time, because for many of them this was their first time on stage.
Other members of SUI had more to say about the transition from “Hunchback” to “Hairspray”.
“I felt it was important to audition for ‘Hairspray’ to show that we can rise above ‘Hunchback’. This is not a one time thing, this is what shows should look like, with a diverse community where we all know each other. The end goal of this movement is that any sort of theater will be more inclusive and diverse,” said Prachi Ruina (Bernice).
Maddi Carroll (Motormouth Maybelle) told the cast during a Sunday rehearsal that “this was our dream,” referring to the diverse and accepting environment of the “Hairspray” family. Carroll hopes this production will inspire others who usually feel underrepresented on stage to pursue theater and learn to love themselves for who they are.
“Do it for the little brown baby in the audience,” she said.
Along with cast members, students helping backstage with costumes, music and make-up seemed to share the same perspective.
“I’ve always been interested in costumes and behind the scenes, especially with hair and make-up and making people look beautiful. From what I’ve seen, the show has come together very nicely, and I hope people will get to see how hard everyone’s worked to pull this show off, especially with the short amount of rehearsal time,” said costume assistant Alex Clavel.
The cast had only one month to put on this show, compared to the usual three months shows have to rehearse, since “Hairspray” is being performed the same dates “Hunchback” was set to open.
Although the cast and crew of “Hairspray” are supportive of this movement, some students who were previously cast in “Hunchback” had mixed feelings.
“I wasn’t named in many articles, which was problematic for me because so many people got the wrong impression of who I was, and so people were surprised to actually hear I’m the girl who was cast as Esmeralda,” said Emma Ellis (Tracy Turnblad). She explained that because of the role she plays in “Hairspray,” she felt that it was finally time to tell her side of the story, where she felt discouraged to do so at first. Being a more “plus-size woman,” she felt she was able to tell a different narrative than the “stereotypical, skinny, blonde female lead.” Ellis also blamed the lack of education on race in schools, since, at first, she felt attacked when others began protesting her role.
“It wasn’t until the board meetings when I understood why Esmeralda had to be played by a person of color, after hearing other people of colors’ stories after years of racial discrimination in the arts.”
Several others who lost their role in “Hunchback” had different perspectives on the show as well.
“With all the controversy, I understand why ‘Hunchback’ was canceled, but it still made me a little upset. I do think ‘Hairspray’ is a fun show though, and I hope people don’t focus too much on a political message of it. I just want people to enjoy the show for what it is,” said Jasper Fearon (Edna Turnblad).
In light of the renewed conversation about race in the ICSD Theater Department, IHS’s Director of Fine and Performing Arts David Brown has helped put together a workshop with Dr. Cynthia Henderson, an associate professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Theatre Arts, that students and staff have been encouraged to attend. It will take place on Monday at IHS.
“The workshop experience we are engineering should provide a space for administrators, students, and faculty to examine perspectives and experiences with various aspects of race, via artistic exploration,” Brown wrote in an email to the IHS student body.
“Hairspray” was performed from April 13-15 in Ithaca High School’s Kulp Auditorium, where the Saturday night and Sunday matinee performances both sold out.
Feature photo: The cast of “Hairspray” rehearses “The Big Dollhouse” at Ithaca High School. (Photo by J.T. Stone)