Now that BRING IT ON is finishing its extended run on Broadway, the time will soon come when you’ll be able to present it, too. It’s Music Theatre International’s newest acquisition.
Because the musical deals with cheerleaders, high school drama clubs will have the opportunity to merge with the cheering squad for a few months. While each group might not have much respect for each other when rehearsals begin, they’ll eventually come to see how much skill the other has. Whenever that happens, education has done its job.
Some might assume that a musical concerned with the problems of cheerleaders might be slight. How much can we care whether or not Truman High or Jackson High wins a cheering competition? When was the last time you went to an adult’s home and found a high school cheerleading trophy prominently displayed? Life will go on for the team that doesn’t win.
But bookwriter Jeff Whitty — as well as songwriters Amanda Green, Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda – know that. They center on the kids’ emotional journey. As a result, they’ve accomplished the seemingly impossible and have made a musical about cheerleading more than mere fun and fluff. BRING IT ON has something genuinely important to say to kids and, yes, adults, too.
Not that the Truman High School cheerleaders have solid values in place when the show begins. They’re seen praying, but hardly to end world hunger. They’re looking to a higher power to guide them to this year’s championship.
Cheering, they insist in their first song, is “What I Was Born to Do.” Eventually they’ll learn that this is, to say the least, a narrow point of view. After all, the shelf-life of a cheerleader hardly makes it a career one can have for life. We’d like to think that even the best high school cheerleaders have greater achievements in store. By the time the show ends, we’re convinced of it.
BRING IT ON offers wonderful roles for girls. First and foremost, there’s Campbell, a senior at Truman and this year’s captain of the cheerleaders. But Campbell certainly hasn’t let the honor go to her head; she’s intent on not only doing the best job possible this year, but is also looking to Truman’s future. To ensure that the school’s squad will be a contender for years to come, she’s thinking about the ideal person to replace her. How’s that for maturity?
Eva, a sophomore, is her choice. The way Whitty writes Eva convinces us early on that she will be the best candidate – certainly better than Skylar. She’s Campbell’s arch-rival, as substantial as a soap bubble and living proof that “beauty is only skin deep.” However, that’s the only way in which Skylar is thin-skinned; emotionally, she sports an alligator’s hide.
For those who expect a story about a good young woman who is sabotaged by a superficial one, think again. Whitty veers away from that well-worn road and takes a hairpin turn that will keep you and your audiences guessing.
First of all, Campbell is victimized by a school redistricting; now she must leave Truman, in which she’s loved and feels at home. Does she go to pieces? No – she looks at it as a new challenge. Is this girl wonderful or what?
Whitty smartly makes matters harder for Campbell once she actually arrives at Jackson High. Kids there are as concerned about cheerleading as they are about the upcoming election in Ecuador. How can they care about the fortunes of the football team when they have genuine problems of their own?
Danielle, an African-American, is much more interested in getting to work on time the moment that school gets out. If she doesn’t make enough money for college tuition, she won’t be able to attend, because her family is in no financial position to help her. Even if Danielle were interested in cheerleading, it would be a luxury that she couldn’t afford.
And yet, Campbell gets Danielle to become a cheerleader when she tells her that a TV reality show about cheerleaders will award scholarships to the best squad. The possibility of free room and board at the university of her choice not only sends Danielle pom-pom hunting, but gets a few other kids to form a squad.
That includes the flamboyant student known as La Cienega. In the current Broadway production, La Cienega is played as a genuine transsexual. That may be a bit much for high schools, so making the character a drag queen might be as far as many directors would care to go. Whatever the case, La Cienega is a strong character who is wonderfully self-actualized and makes no apologies for any choices or decisions.
Campbell seems to be making inroads, but every now and then she gets a bit of evidence – or a hunch – that some dirty doings going on rid her from Truman. Whitty keeps us guessing on whether or not she’s simply being paranoid. And while he gives Campbell some reason to support her suspicions, it’s merely circumstantial evidence that would hardly hold up even in a kangaroo court.
Actually, if Whitty wanted a career as a mystery writer, he might well succeed, for he unfolds the tale with Agatha Christie’s skill. Many will be shocked when they discover that Eva is not what she seems, but is the Eve Harrington of the cheerleading world and maneuvered through her politician-mother to get Campbell transferred.
(For those who don’t know Eve Harrington: she was the upstart actress in the 1950 Oscar-winning film All about Eve who pretended to be a friend to Broadway star Margo Channing, but really had plans to leapfrog over her in both stardom and romance. The film was musicalized in 1970 as Applause, and one of the bookwriters was Amanda Green’s father Adolph. I’d like to think that she named her villain Eva in homage to her father.)
But BRING IT ON turns out to have two villains. The other is – here’s another shock – Campbell. As it turns out, there never was a TV reality show interested in cheerleaders; the girl simply said that to get the indifferent Jackson High kids to form a cheering squad so that she could beat Truman at its own game.
Teens tend to make more mistakes than adults (who, of course, make plenty and too many). The strength of BRING IT ON is showing that a titanic error can be forgiven if the perpetrator is willing to apologize, make amends and be sincere and honest from now on.
That’s a message that young people should hear. Sad to say, many teen suicides have resulted from kids’ assuming that their mistakes would never be forgiven or forgotten. Every adult can tell of a time when he made a mistake and thought it was the end of theworld … only to find years later that it most certainly wasn’t. Some adults now laugh heartily at this once-earthshaking event and are now amazed that theyever took it so seriously.
The show also includes a genuine cheerleading competition between Truman and Jackson. Beforehand, Eva snarls at Campbell, “I’ll have a trophy, and you’ll just have friends” – easily one of the best lyrics of 2012.
Whitty has one more surprise in store: while we want Campbell, Danielle, La Cienega and Jackson to win, they simply aren’t as good as Truman’s squad and they indeed lose.
Or do they? Whitty ensures that these “losers” win in a much more important way. Once you take a look at BRING IT ON, you may well want to bring it to your school.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Awards pis now available through pre-order at www.amazon.com.