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NBC’s musical theater drama Rise has more in common with Friday Night Lights than just the football. Yes, both shows are produced by the same showrunner — Parenthood alum Jason Katims — but the similarities do not stop there.
Katims, along with Rise stars Damon J. Gillespie, Auli’I Cravalho, Josh Radnor and Rosie Perez, spoke with reporters Tuesday at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, where he explained how he came to the project and what to expect from the series that has been described as Friday Night Lights meets Glee.
Based on the book Drama High by Michael Sokolove and the life rights of Lou Volpe, the drama is inspired by a true story and revolves around a working-class high school drama department and the students who come alive under a passionate teacher and family man whose dedication to the program galvanizes the entire town.
“[There] was some connectivity to Friday Night Lights and telling the story about this small town and making it feel authentic,” Katims said of the series that brought him back to NBC, where he produced Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and About a Boy. “While it had this engine of the musical theater, and we got to follow that, we could also go into the lives of the people in this blue-collar town in Pennsylvania and follow their relationships. It’s a story of this community and I was drawn to that.”
Katims said that Hamilton executive producers Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez — who have an overall deal with NBC studio counterpart Universal Television — brought the book to NBC Entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, who loved the idea of turning it into a series. The trio then called Katims, and he knew based on a paragraph-long description that he wanted to do it as his next TV series.
Season one of Rise follows the teacher, Lou (How I Met Your Mother alum Radnor), as he takes over the school’s drama department and throws out its current production of Grease in order to take a risk with Spring Awakening. Katims said that it was important to him to have the right first show-within-a-show for Rise.
“I wanted it to be two things: material that was provocative — that’s what the idea of Lou coming in this program was about — and I also wanted it to be a show that thematically connected to the stories that these characters were going through,” said Katims, who went to see a Pacific Palisades High production of the musical (and interviewed its director) as research. “I was attracted to Spring Awakening because it was a story about teenagers. I felt like the idea of seeing teens playing those roles would be a powerful thing. I wanted this to be a show that as you watched it, yes, you were amazed by seeing the acting and singing, but also that you really connected in to them through what was going in in their lives at home, family and relationships so that it would relate on another level. There wasn’t any opposition from anybody about taking that on.”
Seller and Suarez, having produced Broadway’s Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda, were naturally asked when that show could come to Rise. “Season 12!” Seller joked, with Katims quickly injecting that he’d like that in writing. “In the future, which shows we do will do, I like to come from story first: What is Lou’s story for the next season? What are the characters going through? And then find a show that resonates,” Katims said about what the show-within-a-show for a potential second season could be.
Like Glee, Rise‘s production of Spring Awakening finds an unusual lead in Robbie (Gillespie), the star quarterback of the school’s football team. He’s paired with Cravalho as the unexpected co-lead in Rise‘s Spring Awakening. For Cravalho, the Moana star said she’s a singer first and actress second and was excited to have a part that allows her to connect the storylines through music.
Rise will premiere Tuesday, March 13, following the This Is Us finale before moving to its regular slot at 9 p.m. the following week. Katims, who often is mistakenly credited for creating This Is Us — Dan Fogelman has that honor — said he was grateful for the emotional, character-driven drama’s success. While Friday Night Lights and Parenthood were both character-driven dramas, neither had the breakout ratings success of This Is Us during their respective runs.
“I think having a show like This Is Us that’s had the success it’s had has cleared the path in a way for doing shows like Rise,” Katims said. “Shows that are very character-driven and have a deep emotional core to them and are ultimately just shows about people. Those are definitely the shows that appeal to me as a viewer, but it’s also the kinds of stories I like to tell. Having shows like This Is Us has helped that. To also be able to be on the network that This Is Us is on, and to have our first episode air after their finale, is also an incredible opportunity for us.”
As for how loyal Rise will be to its source material, Katims said it was important to make changes that made the show different. One big change (spoiler alert) is that Lou eventually comes out as gay in the book. Radnor’s Lou, however, is straight and married, with his family also serving as a big part of Rise. (His son has a drinking problem, which becomes a central storyline.)
“I hope and believe that we carry a lot of [Lou’s] spirit into the show. We took that as inspiration. I felt like I needed to make it my own story. I didn’t want to shy away from sexual orientation and gender,” said Katims, who referenced a transgender high school student and another who is coming to grips with his own sexuality amid being raised by a very religious family. “Those stories resonated with me as a storyteller and I wanted to lean into that. With Lou’s family, there’s a lot of reimagination — not just if he’s gay or straight, but the family structure. … It was important to honor the source material, but to also make it my own so we’d be able to lean into it.”
Watch the Rise trailer, below.
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