Author: Allison Burnett
Writer’s Potential: 7
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A disparate group of students spend four years at a prestigious high school for artists in New York.
Young Artists study their craft while teachers (in voiceover) describe the struggles on the road ahead. A pseudo-montage follows as each character is introduced amid the cacophony of American Idol-esque bad auditions. JENNY LANG, petite and blonde, performs a monologue she’s written herself. DENISE DUPREE, the sheltered daughter of a minister, gives a nervous piano audition. MARCO BRUNELLO, a working-class Italian-American Brooklyn boy, sings a heartfelt love song. MALIK WASHBURN, a stylish African-American, recites a poem. ALICE BARTON, a down-to-earth girl raised in a ritzy household, impresses with her dance skills. KEVIN BAILEY, a sweet-faced Midwestern dancer, performs an expert tap number. NEIL FLEISCHER, a nebbishy butcher’s son with filmmaking ambitions, auditions for the acting program. JOY MOY, a tiny Chinese-American girl, acts the hell out of Juliet. VICTOR TAVERAS, Dominican and cute, skinny and cocky, is a songwriter and multitalented musician. ROSIE MARTINEZ, a voluptuous Dominican girl, impresses with her fierce attitude and aggressive dance skills. These are the lucky freshmen who have been accepted, all of them 14 and eager.
Freshman year starts with each student getting ready and making the commute to school. Immediately, their teachers warn them of the difficulties they’ll have, try to prepare them for the next four years. At lunch, the cafeteria is jammed with artists creating. After and impromptu musical number, Denise and Marco leave the chaos and share a nice, quiet moment. She offers him half a sandwich, and they each empathize with the other’s feeling of being an outsider in this new world. Looking for Rosie, Victor encounters Alice. She’s coarse and unpleasant; he’s cocky and obnoxious. They don’t get along.
By winter, Malik and Jenny are rehearsing scenes together. Malik finds the concept uncomfortable, fearing nobody will believe him playing someone so thoroughly outside of his skin. Jenny’s about to give him some words of encouragement when she runs into ANDY MATTHEWS, an upperclassmen, whom she immediately drools over. Malik teases her about him.
DOWD, the acting teacher, tells his students to start a journal chronicling the world they inhabit and question it. Alice has an awkward dinner with her parents; they’re gleeful about a former peer of Alice’s getting into Yale. Despite Alice’s disinterest in Yale, her parents hold out hope that the friend’s surprise success story could also happen to Alice. Meanwhile, REVEREND DUPREE, Denise’s father, is unhappy hearing his daughter will have to be out so late to perform with the school orchestra.
Joy Moy, Kevin, Neil, and Marco wander around Times Square and Broadway, discussing their dreams and aspirations. Later, all the students discuss their varied summer plans. Marco asks Jenny to dance, and she gets angry and storms away. He’s shocked.
Sophomore year. Neil obnoxiously videotapes Jenny and her friends, and they insult him. Joy Moy, Kevin, and Rosie discuss Rosie’s curves and her laziness. Although Rosie protests the laziness remark, dance teacher MISS KRAFT seems to agree with Joy Moy and Kevin. Later, Dowd adjusts the acting assignment: the students are to take the information accumulated in their journals, create a character based on someone they know and have studied, and find a way to correspond these characters with a character from a famous play. Marco sings a passionate love song for his class but makes it clear he’s singing to Jenny. Victor is accosted by CRANSTON, the music teacher, for playing with his own style instead of obeying traditional music rules. Victor argues that Bach is only famous today for breaking traditional molds 300 years ago.
Marco tries to apologize for embarrassing Jenny; Jenny doesn’t accept. Marco notices Jenny’s attraction to Andy Matthews. Denise, accompanying a singer on piano, gives the upperclassman some tips on singing. Victor finds out Denise’s “secret”—that she’s an excellent singer herself—and teases her about it. He asks her to sing on some demo recordings he’ll be making, and she reluctantly agrees. Jenny complains to her friends that Andy Matthews doesn’t notice her. Neil performs a character based on his father, who reminds the class of Willy Loman. When Andy Matthews says something offensive to Joy Moy, Kevin mocks him. Andy and his friends surround Kevin, acting menacing, but Marco steps in to rescue him.
At a Halloween dance, Victor slips Malik (the DJ) a CD of Denise singing “Fame,” and everyone dances. Joy Moy gets drunk and performs a monologue (videotaped by Neil) inspired by Jenny. When they play it for the class, Jenny’s humiliated. She asks to “borrow” Neil’s DVD, then hands it to a geeky kid to upload it to YouTube. Her sister discovers it quickly and says she’ll be in deep trouble.
Marco convinces Denise to go to a poetry slam, where she’s surprised by Malik’s engaging reading. After complaining that she has no friends, Alice’s father convinces her to sign up for a nonprofit activity, which will look good on her Yale application. At the poetry slam, Marco hooks Malik and Denise up. As they walk home together, Denise argues with Malik about his anger toward everything. She doesn’t see a reason for it.
Alice volunteers at a soup kitchen in a slum with Victor. After Miss Kraft harasses Rosie again and threatens to throw her out of the school, Rosie picks a passionate fight; Miss Kraft recommends her for the acting program. At the end of the year, Joy Moy rushes in and says her YouTube video got her an agent.
Junior year. Joy Moy auditions for Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls. The director suggests that Denise, who’s accompanying, should audition. Denise is reluctant; she sings an original gospel ballad that blows everyone away.
Neil engineers a meeting with Martin Scorsese by waiting around his dentist’s office. Scorsese is polite and encouraging; he agrees to look at Neil’s short script. Malik performs a monologue about his sister dying; it’s passionate, but Dowd knocks him down by telling Malik he covered everything except how the incident made him feel. Malik becomes abrasive and stomps out of class. Jenny and her friends sneak into a Columbia frat party and run into Andy Matthews, who has now graduated.
Joy Moy excitedly lets Denise know that she, a lowly junior, got the role of Sarah Brown. After a night at the soup kitchen, Victor asks Alice out. Kevin invites Joy Moy to her apartment; they rehearse a scene together, and she gets so in the moment that she kisses him, even though she’s supposed to be playing his mother. At a seedy warehouse, Victor and Alice go to see some performance art. At first, it freaks Alice out, but she gets into it. Joy Moy confesses her love for Kevin, in spite of his homosexuality. He lets her down gently. Alice apologizes for her hostility toward Victor.
Denise explains the role of Sarah Brown to Reverend Dupree, who already knows and disapproves. Neil gets a call from Scorsese, who has read his script and thinks it has a lot of potential. Neil asks him for money to finance it. At a karaoke club, the students perform a raucous country number. MISS ROWAN, the teacher chaperoning this event, tells a disappointing story about having so much potential but turning out to be a tiny fish in a vast ocean of superior talent, which is what led to her teaching at P.A.
Malik’s mother arrives at school, and everyone is shocked to discover she’s white. Denise quits Guys and Dolls. Alice lets Victor know she’s been accepted in the Joffrey Ballet and is leaving P.A.
Senior year. Dowd gives Malik a pep-talk about being half-white. Neil asks Jenny to star in his film, but she refuses; Rosie happily agrees to star in it. Later, Jenny is date-raped by Andy Matthews. Neil finishes up his script. MISS SIMMS convinces Denise to sign up for a college arts program. Alice’s leaving inspires Victor’s music. Neil’s film premiere and is loved by the students. Jenny apologizes for treating him badly. Neil cheers her up by naming now-famous actors who turned down famous roles.
Malik and Denise come to an understanding—both realize they need to stop doing what’s expected of them and do what they want to do. Denise decides to go to her college program, while Malik reunites with his family. Meanwhile, Jenny learns Marco has pounded the daylights out of Andy and is grateful. The class graduates, set to a musical number.
The story has its moments—some of the relationships and parental conflicts are sweet—and the writer does a great job with writing dialogue for such a diverse group of characters. Although many characters (especially the teachers) do little more than spout clichés, each character has a distinctive voice that feels authentic.
However, there are simply too many characters to make every single character and subplot satisfying. In trying so hard to hit as many ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds possible, the writer doesn’t have any room to breathe. I give him credit for trying to give each character his or her due, and he does a better-than-expected job of keeping all these characters straight, but it’s just too much. Taking two of these romantic couples and really fleshing them out will help streamline things a bit, rather than giving us a total of ten characters (not counting the teachers, parents, and supporting players populating the script) and trying to balance each of their stories.
Another significant problem is the lack of a clear antagonist, or any real jeopardy. Each character has a moment or two of conflict—sometimes significant conflict, as in the case of Jenny’s rape—but the lack of clear goals and antagonists makes the story murky. The writer never shows what these kids really want out of this school, other than the obvious: fame. Why are they so desperate for fame? I never felt close enough to any of the characters to know. The script introduces vague adversaries and obstacles, but for a story that spends about 15 of its first 30 pages telling us, in blunt terms, how difficult this journey will be—none of the students have a difficult time. The few obstacles hurled in their way resolve themselves within a few pages. Clearer goals and a true antagonist would give this story a much tighter focus and help it earn the happy ending.
With the enormous success of the High School Musical movies and American Idol, a story like this would definitely appeal to the teenage and young-adult demographics. It also has nostalgia value for an older audience familiar with the original film and TV series—the kind of movie parents would happily take their teenage daughters to see. The fact that it’s a musical but doesn’t overwhelm with musical numbers—there aren’t many and they are naturally integrated into the storyline—might also appeal to non-musical fans.