Drama High

Drama High

by Michael Sokolove

Overview: Why would the multimillionaire producer of Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon take his limo from Manhattan to the struggling former steel town of Levittown, Pennsylvania, to see a high school production of Les Misérables?

To see the show performed by the astoundingly successful theater company at Harry S Truman High School, run by its legendary director, Lou Volpe. Broadway turns to Truman High when trying out controversial shows such as Rent and Spring Awakening before they move on to high school theater programs across the nation. Volpe’s students from this blue-collar town go on to become Emmy-winning producers, entertainment executives, newscasters, and community-theater founders.

Michael Sokolove, a Levittown native and former student of Volpe’s, chronicles the drama director’s last school years and follows a group of student actors as they work through riveting dramas both on and off the stage. This is a story of an economically depressed but proud town finding hope in a gifted teacher and the magic of theater.

Deanna Boe (04/04/19): This is a book that every teacher, former and present, plus all parents with high school children should read. It is an eye-opener about what it is like to be a teacher, life in a lower to middle class environment, students who can be motivated to go up and beyond what is expected of them, acceptance of different life styles plus much more is brought forth in this wonderfully written book. It leaves you with a “wow” feeling and a smile on your face. What makes this even more unique is the author was a student of this teacher, almost 40 years before, who believes he went on to make a success of his life because of this teacher.

This exceptional teacher is Lou Volpe who taught and did everything there was to do with speech. Volpe felt like most teachers, but went on to assure that it was true. He simply wanted to be remembered as a teacher who was able to create a “spark of learning” – and this spark would be carried forward to help his students live a richer life. This wasn’t an easy task teaching in Levittown, Pennsylvanian. Levittown was created in the early fifties for the GI’s returning from war and those who were trying to improve their way of life. 17,000 homes were built by a developer named William Levitt. These were for the most part 3 bedroom homes that all looked exactly alike for people who also all looked alike, in other words no minorities. It did include 5 extremely large swimming pools, parks, and other things to appeal to the newly developing middle class. There were plenty of non-degree jobs, especially at the steel mills. It was a time when most of the women stayed at home and looked after their children. It provided a good life for the average person.

We are introduced early in the book that Volpe didn’t believe in shying away from notorious plays. As the times changed, so did his approach as to what the students could perform which included some very controversial plays that had been produced on Broadway. Writers and producers felt that only Volpe was capable of doing their plays and he proved them right by being selected one of only five high schools in all of the United States to go Lincoln, Nebraska (several times) and show their talent. Their amount of time and effort was rewarded with standing ovations. He had taught his students “empathy – the ability to imagine lives other than their own; the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory….beyond what the playwright put on the page.”

The author points out how the people in Levittown didn’t change but they just got poorer, the opportunities to improve their lives weren’t the same; the good blue-colored jobs disappeared. It was no longer the community in which he had grown up. More than 3,000 of the 6,200 students qualify for free or reduced lunch in the Bristol Township’s public schools. They are looked down by neighboring areas, but when they leave and perform, for instance, in Nebraska, they are applauded as outstanding. Volpe works with strictly working-class people and even handicapped. “It is not pessimistic, but it is pragmatic. As a parent or an educator you hope to create the conditions for success. But there are no guarantees. Stuff happens along the way.” With that he made a success of so many lives in the forty plus years he taught. This review doesn’t begin to show the impact he had.
Rating: *****

Faith Bowers (02/16/19): Some of us know how hard Debbie works at her county wide writer’s day which show cases a local writer who speaks at a luncheon and is very well attended. Michael Sokolove was born here in Bucks County, Pa, where I reside and has lived much of his life in the Philadelphia area. He writes for the NY Times Magazine, other books. This book about a very special person here in Bucks County was well written, uplifting and educational about the sociology of a working class town in decline. Lou Volpe managed the Truman High School theater department for 40 years, making it more important than their high school sports. His love of theater, personal growth and how well he loved his students is represented by the following of two plays that was produced during the time Sokolove researched his story. I highly recommend this book to any Pennsylvanian, theater lover or anyone who wants to have a good read with a great true story. Our local Hadassah group is bringing him in to speak over a dinner iin April.
Rating: *****

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