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These were the most frequently performed plays and musicals in high schools this year

Spring Woods High School in  Houston, Texas, is one of the schools that put on a production of <em>The Addams Family.</em>
Susan Doremus
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Educational Theatre Associaton
Spring Woods High School in Houston, Texas, is one of the schools that put on a production of The Addams Family.

The Educational Theatre Association has released its top-10 lists of plays and musicals performed in high schools during the 2022-2023 school year. More than 2,300 public and private high school teachers across the U.S. participated.

The Addams Family topped the list of full-length musicals, followed by Mamma Mia!

The No. 1 full length play was Clue, followed by Puffs. Disney's Frozen JR held the top spot among short musicals.

And 10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse tied with Check Please for the most popular short play.

You can see the full list here.

The EdTA calls the survey a "snapshot" of both what's popular with high school theater departments and "the educational climate." Eighty five percent of respondents reported being, "at least somewhat concerned about censorship" and 67% said that, "censorship concerns" are influencing their selections for next year.

Changing tastes and values reflected in the Play Survey

Jennifer Katona, executive director of EdTA, believes The Addams Family's popularity, "has a lot to do with our students love of the Netflix show Wednesday." Another hit this year: The SpongeBob Musical. "It's got a lot of music from a lot of different lyricists and musicians, so the students in the schools are really enjoying that one, too."

This is the first year Mean Girls: High School Version has been licensed to schools and it jumped to the #10 spot of full-length musicals. It helps that the musical based on Tina Fey's popular movie had a successful Broadway run not too long ago, and that the cast is largely female. High school theatre programs often attract more girls than boys.

The annual Play Survey began in 1938. NPR's Education Desk did an eye-opening analysis of how high school plays have tracked over the survey's 85 year history.

Our Town, for example, was consistently among the top 10 plays "by decade," from the 1940s-2010s. In the last two surveys, Thornton Wilder's eternal classic held the number 10 spot but didn't make the list this year. Katona says high school drama departments are "diversifying their repertoires."

"Schools have really made an effort to bring in different playwrights and have different representation of voices on their stages," she says.

Stymied over censorship concerns

With school boards and local governments cancelling theater productions and banning books, the EdTA survey also found that drama teachers are nervous.

Erik Martinez and Shelby Brown in New Albany High School's production of Disney's <em>Beauty and the Beast </em>in New Albany, Ind. The show tied for fifth place (with <em>The Little Mermaid) </em>in the full-length musical category.
/ Educational Theatre Association
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Educational Theatre Association
Erik Martinez and Shelby Brown in New Albany High School's production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast in New Albany, Ind. The show tied for fifth place (with The Little Mermaid) in the full-length musical category.

"Teachers know that they need to be smart about what they're putting on their stages," says Katona, "They're making choices that will allow them to keep their theater programs." She adds, "Theater has always been a safe space for a lot of our students."

Danny Issa teaches theater at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Va. While he says, while he always involves students in the play selection process, he also makes sure school officials are well aware of content that some might find inappropriate.

"The arts in general are in such a precarious position at all times. Are we going to have funding? Are we going to be able to make it through another season?" Issa reflects. "Just a single complaint from a parent can have a show pulled." That includes losing, "all the money that you've pumped into a production."

Still, Issa's concerns did not stop him — and lots of other high school theater teachers — from staging Almost, Maine, a play about love and relationships that includes gay characters.

Despite facing challenges in Michigan and North Carolina in recent years, Almost, Maine held the No. 6 spot on this year's list of full-length plays.

High school theater programs are "rebounding from the pandemic"

Culture wars aside, the Play Survey found that, on average, attendance is up and theater programs are ramping up production.

"The average audience size across all performances in a school season increased 13 percent over last year to 1,967," EdTA writes in a statement.

<em>Mean Girls: High School Version</em> made its debut on the list this year in the full-length musical category. Above, a production at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.
/ Educational Theatre Association
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Educational Theatre Association
Mean Girls: High School Version made its debut on the list this year in the full-length musical category. Above, a production at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.

"Coming out of the pandemic, I think everyone was really excited to just be able to see theater again," says Issa.

Washington-Liberty High School's musical — The Prom — sold more than $10,000 in tickets, up more than $4,000 from last year's musical, according to Issa.

Almost, Maine also did well. "We ended up opening our balcony in the auditorium," Issa says. "Just because of the sheer number of people that showed up for closing night."

Audio and NPR.org versions of this story were edited by Rose Friedman and adapted to NPR.org by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.