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Howard Sherman: Marvel’s student plays bode well for school stages

Book covers for the Marvel plays: Squirrel Girl, Hammered and Mirror of Most Value Book covers for the Marvel plays: Squirrel Girl, Hammered and Mirror of Most Value
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Imagine if the long-running NT Connections programme was generating new plays for the secondary school market all about comic book heroes.

While not the perfect analogy, it’s the fastest way to summarise the new Marvel Spotlight programme, a collaboration between Samuel French – now under the Concord Theatricals umbrella – and Marvel Entertainment, part of Disney’s empire.

On Monday, the first three one-act plays were announced: Squirrel Girl Goes to College by Karen Zacarías, Hammered by Christian Borle, about Thor and Loki’s rivalry, and Mirror of Most Value, featuring Ms Marvel, by Masi Asare. They are available for immediate licensing in the US and will be rolled out in the UK in the autumn.

There’s little doubt that offering up plays where students get to be part of superhero narratives will prove popular. You only need to look at the lure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as comic books and television projects, to appreciate the degree to which these characters have become central figures in the popular imagination.

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While this is a form of brand extension, the announcement suggests that rather than chasing around the universe after Thanos, the stories have more serious intent. For Mirror of Most Value: “Kamala Khan has to accept herself just as she is – imperfections and all – if she is to become the hero of her dreams.” Kamala Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim hero to headline a story.

Squirrel Girl Goes to College “follows Doreen Green as she attempts to reinvent herself and make ‘normal’ human friends at a new school”. There’s more on the mind of these plays than special effects.

In January I saw a pilot performance of two plays in the series, without the knowledge of Marvel or Samuel French: Hammered and another that will be introduced next year. As I was attending as part of my work on advocating for high school theatre, I chose not to write about the project until it was fully public, especially as these were understood to be works in progress. I didn’t want to prematurely tantalise theatre buffs or comic fanboys.

But I can say that, based on what I saw in January, the plays have even more serious themes than the press release lets on. In Hammered, the issue of binge drinking, perhaps even early-stage alcoholism, was a component of the story, lending a double meaning to its title.

In the other play that’s due out next year, one of the major Marvel characters appears in a story about teen suicide. As someone who is very supportive of theatre students doing work that addresses real-life problems, these pieces certainly play to my interests.

As it happens, there is more news of work heading to school stages. On Tuesday morning Music Theatre International announced it had released the rights for licensing to The Scottsboro Boys, including for schools. A presentation of the show was part of the programming at this week’s International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska, where some 5,000 high school students, along with their teachers, convened for workshops and performances.

The Scottsboro Boys is certainly challenging work that will have to be handled carefully in schools (it has met with intermittent protests since its Broadway debut), but it is particularly welcome. It puts a musical with a cast entirely of men of colour, save for one role, into the student repertoire, where such shows are all too rare. It also grapples with a historic injustice from American history.

John Kander and Susan Stroman on the making of The Scottsboro Boys

Also entering the student market is Head Over Heels, with its brash, diverse portrayal of gender identity, and The Prom has been acquired for licensing, with its witty-yet-sweet account of two teen girls who want to attend their prom together in a narrow-minded Indiana town.

While The Laramie Project has long been a staple of high-school theatre in the US, though not without facing occasional opposition and censorship attempts, these musicals performed in secondary schools may serve to highlight important social topics and perspectives.

Taken together, these pieces becoming available for the school theatre market bodes well for school stages. Whether part of the Marvel universe or straight from Broadway, the protagonists of all of these shows are, in their way, superheroes.

This week in US theatre

A reworked version of Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five, which debuted at Hartford Stage in 2002 and ran for five months Off-Broadway in 2003, opens tonight in Boston, with Faye Dunaway returning to the stage in the sole role as Katharine Hepburn. While the original two-act version portrayed Hepburn at two points in her life, 1938 and 1983, the current version – directed by John Tillinger, who steered the original production – focuses on the older Hepburn in a single act. Early press notices indicated a summer debut on Broadway, but at this point, no New York run is announced.

Opening on Tuesday, the 1980s hair-band jukebox musical Rock of Ages joins the parade of Broadway hits that have relocated Off-Broadway, in this case to mark the 10th anniversary of the head-banging show. One of the original Broadway cast members, Mitchell Jarvis, is in the company and the show is again directed by Kristin Hanggi. Incidentally, an immersive production of Rock of Ages in Los Angeles, where the show began, has been announced for September, for those who won’t stop believing and can’t fight this feeling anymore.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

Performance rights to Emilia made available for schools

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