What Are the Most Popular High School Musicals and Plays?

two kids on stage reading a script
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Each year, studies are done to see what schools are producing in their theater departments, and year to year, there are several plays that regularly top the charts. But, each year, there are also a few surprises. Let's look at the trends for plays over the past few years.

The 2017-2018 School Year

Since the current school year isn't over yet, we'll start by looking at last year. According to Playbill.com, for the 2017-2018 school year, the top full-length play was "Almost, Maine" by John Carini and the top Musical was the Alan Menken musical, "Beauty and the Beast." Apparently, "Almost Maine" is a steady trend, topping the charts for more than three years in a row. "Beauty and the Beast" is new to the top spot but has been a regular presence in the top ten.

What else was a top choice according to Playbill.com? For full-length plays, these plays rounded out the top five:

  1. "Almost, Maine"
  2. "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
  3. "Peter and the Starcatcher"
  4. "Alice in Wonderland"
  5. "Our Town" 

In the musical category, "Beauty and the Beast" climbed to the top, edging out last year's favorite. The top five choices according to Playbill.com are:

  1. "Beauty and the Beast"
  2. "The Addams Family"
  3. "The Little Mermaid"
  4. "Into the Woods"
  5. "Cinderella" 

Top Plays Over the Years

In July 2015, NPR released a report that went above and beyond, looking at trends in school plays over the past few decades. Only two plays stood the test of time, coming in the top five most popular plays every decade since the 1940s: "You Can't Take it With You" and "Our Town."

Back in 2011-2012, according to a post on the Education Week blog, the ten most commonly produced school plays for the year contained few surprises. This list was the result of a survey carried out each year by the magazine Dramatics, published by the Educational Theatre Association.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani is a recent play, first developed at the Cape Cod Theatre Project and the Portland Stage Company in Maine in 2004. It opened off-Broadway in 2005-2006 and is about residents of a fictional Maine town called Almost who fall in and out of love as the Northern lights float above them in the sky.

Twelve Angry Men written by Reginald Rose was later turned into a 1957 movie adaptation starring Henry Fonda. It is a liberal defense of the American jury system and offers a nice ensemble cast for schools to cast many actors in important roles.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare is a common production, often in middle schools. It’s a comedy that features woodland sprites and confused lovers who fall prey to spells. The production can feature creative costumes for the woodland creatures.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder is a three-act play written in 1938 about characters in a small town called Grover’s Corners who enact an allegory about birth, death, and the moments in between.

You Can’t Take it With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in three acts first performed in 1936. It’s about a seemingly eccentric family who are decidedly individualistic and who might just be saner than the conformists around them, and the play has many funny moments with sparkling dialogue.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a 1953 play that is about the Salem Witch Trials in the colonial era and also a commentary on the witch hunts during McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Noises Off by Michael Frayn is a 1982 production about a play-within-a-play, as actors prepare to stage a horrid sex comedy, and the audience sees the travails they endure bringing the play about from different perspectives.

Arsenic and Old Lace an age-old comedic favorite by Joseph Kesselring, is about a man dealing with his insane relatives who appear harmless but are actually quite deadly.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is an oft-performed play written over 100 years ago that is still loved for its farcical elements and witty dialogue. The stage sets and costumes can also be colorful and Victorian in style.

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman/Tectonic Theater Project is about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.

The Controversy Around School Plays

A survey of public high-school drama teachers referenced in the Education Week blog revealed that 19% of teachers had been challenged about their choices about which play to produce, and The Laramie Project was among the plays that were most often challenged. As a result, 38% of the time, the play that the teachers had chosen was ultimately not produced.

While some private school drama teachers have more leverage than public school teachers about what they produce, they don’t always get carte blanche, either. Schools often produce crowd pleasers rather than more provocative dramas, and these shows draw more parents and younger children, but it’s worthwhile to remember that there are thought-provoking and interesting plays out there that make good productions for high school students in particular and that private school audiences might benefit from, particularly if parents are asked only to bring older children to the production.