Choreographer Danny Mefford (Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home) is pulling double duty as he creates movement for NBC’s Rise. Not only does he need to build movement that makes sense for Spring Awakening, the musical put on by the students of Stanton High, he also needs to think about what will serve the larger story of Rise and its characters. “I tried to balance Stanton High’s production of Spring Awakening on two pillars: the narrative and character needs of Rise and physical truth,” he says.
“Early in the season, I realized that I needed to stage the theatre scenes and dances with the needs of Rise as the priority,” he shares. “Maybe that seems obvious, but, as a life-long theatre maker and a first-time TV maker, I was getting hung up on: ‘That's not EXACTLY what happens in Spring Awakening’ or ‘That's not EXACTLY what Melchior or Wendla is thinking or feeling in that moment.’ It didn't matter because Lilette was feeling or thinking that, or Gwen, or Robbie. I felt like I'd found the key to the job.
“As for the second pillar, anytime I'm staging something, I make physical truth my main focus and the moves my secondary focus,” says the choreographer. Which is why there’s an amateur characterization to some the movement. “I wanted these kids to feel like real high schoolers at a real public high school all working together towards a common goal. That, for me, is fundamentally what Rise is about: the beauty of group collaboration. That's a journey with a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes it's not going well. Having the courage to show that and not make everything look perfect was another important aspect of the job.
Watching back his work, the poignance of Rise resonates with Mefford given all students deal with today. “When I think about the fact that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are also doing a production of Spring Awakening it fills me with pride and wonder. Theatre is so important. Learning to work together is so important. Empathy is a special kind of intelligence that making theatre helps develop, regardless of whether or not it leads to a career in the arts. Rise puts the spotlight right on that. I'm so proud to be a part of it!"
Watch the clip below to see Mefford’s vision come to life in “Touch Me” from Spring Awakening, which aired during the April 24 episode, and catch Rise Tuesdays at 9PM ET on NBC.