Title: Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater
Author: Michael Sokolove
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: I fell really hard for Drama High.
The jacket copy for the book said the book was like Friday Night Lights meets Glee, which is a combination I couldn’t resist. It’s also one of those taglines that can either make or break a book because it sets up very particular expectations for where this story might go (some good, some bad). Luckily, author Michael Sokolove keeps Drama High laser-focused on his main subject, Truman High School’s drama director of 40 years, Lou Volpe, and the impact one teacher can have on the lives of his students and his community.
Truman High School is located in Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of numerous former manufacturing communities struggling to adapt to a new American economy. Truman is on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak — on the poorer side of town, with more blue-collar families and fewer academically elite students than many surrounding schools. Yet Truman’s drama program is one of the most highly recognized in the nation.
Led by Volpe since the 1970s, Truman drama has piloted the first high school productions of Les Misérables, Rent and Spring Awakening for a major theater licensing company (it’s hard to describe why this is a big deal in a short review but trust me, it’s major). As he follows Volpe’s last years teaching before his retirement, Sokolove, a Levittown native, also looks more broadly at threats to arts education for high school students and what it takes to be successful in a town where you wouldn’t expect it.
What makes Drama High such a wonderful book is, as you might expect, the people in the story. Sokolove writes generously but honestly about Volpe and the students who starred in some of his last productions. He also doesn’t shy away from some of the difficult aspects of Volpe’s life, including his first marriage that ended after Volpe admitted he was gay (after raising a high-school aged son). That’s a touchy subject, but I thought Sokolove, Vople and Volpe’s family handled it with delicacy and grace.
Broadly, Drama High is also a really interesting look at the status of arts education in the United States. Sokolove doesn’t get bogged down with this, but does use Truman’s program as an interesting counterexample to the overwhelming tendency to cut the arts in favor of reading, science and math classes.
Drama High ended up being one of those books that I didn’t realize had gotten it’s claws into me until I started tearing up reading the speeches that Volpe gave to his students before one of their last performances together. It was such a resonant moment, both for the people and the story and for my own memories of high school theater. It was lovely, but also a little unexpected because the style of the book is, like Truman drama, unshowy but sophisticated. It was a wonderful book that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Further Reading: Michael Sokolove did a piece for The New York Times Magazine on Truman High School that would be a good preview, “The Real-Life ‘Glee’ in Levittown, Pa.”