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Ellen Gray: 'Musical' bares teen angst

YOU CAN SEE where ABC might be more interested than most networks in high school musicals.

ABC News followed Westfield High School's production of "The Wiz" for three months.
ABC News followed Westfield High School's production of "The Wiz" for three months.Read more


NOTE: ABC's "20/20" special, "Drama High" will air at 1:05 a.m. Wednesday on WPVI (Channel 6), according to the station. The documentary, which was scheduled to air last night in most of the rest of the country, was pre-empted locally, and in Cleveland, for a simulcast of the Eagles-Browns game. The time was thus incorrect in the first version of this column.

YOU CAN SEE where ABC might be more interested than most networks in high school musicals.

After all, its cable sibling, the Disney Channel, has turned its "High School Musical" franchise into a worldwide phenomenon on screens small and large.

Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

But ABC's viewers aren't necessarily Disney's - maybe that's what you get for ditching "TGIF," folks - and ratings for last summer's "reality" competition, "High School Musical: Get in the Picture," were, to put it mildly, disappointing.

Enter the news division.

Tonight, "20/20" raises the curtain on a two-hour special, "Drama High: The Making of a High School Musical," that's must viewing for every kid (or former kid) who ever sweated out an audition in a high school auditorium under the unforgiving, possibly envious, eyes of peers.

Filmed at Virginia's Westfield High School, where the drama department sets out to stage "The Wiz," the documentary's a reminder that reality is nearly always more compelling than "reality."

"Reality" shows have to cast for conflict, and when casting's not enough to ignite things, they've been known to rub sticks - and people - together to create sparks.

"Drama High" doesn't require matches, though. Not when it has a bunch of eager, hormonal youngsters whose egos and talents come in a range of sizes and whose predominantly white high school is performing a musical best known for its all-black cast.

Race isn't the only potential hot button.

When a plus-sized teen with a voice to match sets her sights on playing Dorothy, you'll wonder whether this is going to go the way it might on Fox's "American Idol," where viewers have shown considerable tolerance on issues of weight, or the way it historically has in high school.

Another Dorothy wannabe has a different reason to worry - though she, too, lacks the look her directors are seeking, it's clearly an experience she's never had before, and she's not shy about talking about what she sees as the unfairness of it all.

A third, shyer than the others and with a less polished voice, has the look, but struggles with the rest.

"I'm not fully contented with this show, in any aspect. And a lot of people aren't," declares one of the disappointed Dorothys after the cast list is posted. "There's rustling in the ranks, because no one's really happy."

The boys, too, have their issues: Will the freshman who can still hit some high notes steal a plum part from all those senior boys? Will the guys relegated to lesser roles ever get focused? And will the kid who didn't get to be the Tin Man get over it already?

Transformation being one of the magical things that happens in high school productions, all's well that ends well.


Not, though before we see even tougher drama, as cameras follow players home, catching conversations with parents who may be too close to their children as well as with those who may not be nearly close enough.

This can be painful stuff, since it's easy for adults to dismiss a certain amount of teenage angst as imaginary, product of a period of undeniably heightened sensitivities.

But then you hear a mother saying things she shouldn't - or things you fear you've said yourself - and you wonder, perhaps for the first time in years, how anyone actually gets out of adolescence alive. *

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