The Most-Performed High School Musicals

Which musicals are future Broadway fanatics exposed to first?

The Broadway cast of Spelling Bee
The Broadway cast of Spelling Bee. Joan Marcus

Ah, high school musicals. No, I'm not talking about Disney's attenuated franchise of TV movies and its various spinoffs and competitors. I'm talking about real musicals, not packaged, prefab ratings bait. And performed by real high school students, not homogenized mannequins. 

I mean real live high school musicals, warts and all, complete with all the travails and triumphs that only a high school production of a beloved piece of musical theater can provide.

For many of us who are so ardently devoted to musical theater, high school was our first significant dose of the drug. I myself performed in Godspell, Fiddler on the Roof, and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown at my high school, not to mention The Pajama Game, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and The Fantasticks at local community theaters.

And it was the start of a life-long obsession with the musical-theater form. Many prominent Broadway performers report that their first exposure to the joys are musical theater was during their high school years. 

So, which shows do schools perform the most? Well, each year, the Educational Theatre Association surveys its members to discover which shows are being produced across the country. It's not exactly a scientific sampling, but it does provide an interesting glimpse of the shows that future Broadway patrons, aficionados, and even practitioners are being exposed to first.

What follows is a list of the musicals that member schools reported putting on for the 2014 to 2015 school year. (Check here for a similar list of full-length and short plays.) 

1. The Addams Family
2. Shrek the Musical
3 (tie). Legally Blonde
3 (tie). Cinderella
5. Little Shop of Horrors
6 (tie). Anything Goes
6 (tie). Guys and Dolls
8 (tie). You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
8 (tie). The Wizard of Oz
8 (tie). Hairspray
11. Beauty and the Beast
12 (tie). The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
12 (tie). Footloose
14. Into the Woods
15 (tie). Grease
15 (tie). Once Upon a Mattress
15 (tie). Seussical
18 (tie). Mary Poppins
18 (tie). The Music Man
20 (tie). Bye Bye Birdie
20 (tie). The Sound of Music
20 (tie). Thoroughly Modern Millie

A couple of things are worth noting in the current list. First, most of these shows have fairly large casts, which is pretty much a requirement for high school drama departments. Also, there are many more contemporary musicals than there have been on the list in the past. In addition to perennials like Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls, we're starting to see high schools tackle shows that were first produced within the past decade or so, such as Legally Blonde, Hairspray, and Spelling Bee.

Also, it seems that just because a show is commonly performed, that doesn't mean it's very good. Witness the presence of Footloose and...Lord, help us all...The Addams Family. (Read my review of the latter.) I think what partly accounts for the popularity of these not-so-worthy shows is another trend on the list: the preponderance of recognizable brands, such as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. It would seem that high school dramatics societies are no less risk-averse than Broadway producers. A recognizable name sells, and quality be damned. 

Also, it's important to recognize that this survey is anything but scientific. It's a self-report survey of subscribers to the ETA's Dramatics magazine. These folks may or may not be representative of high schools across the nation. Also, check out how many ties there are in the above listing, a whopping seven. As any statistician will tell you, that many ties likely indicates that the sample size was pretty small.

Still, there's a sort of warm glow that I get as I scan the list and think of all the students having their first exposure to performing in musicals. Some of them will have fun but then move on with their lives. While others, like me, will be smitten for life.