Drama High: The Incredible True Story Of A Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, And The Magic Of Theater by Michael SokoloveDrama High: The Incredible True Story Of A Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, And The Magic Of Theater by Michael Sokolove

Drama High: The Incredible True Story Of A Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, And The Magic Of…

byMichael Sokolove

Paperback | October 7, 2014

Pricing and Purchase Info


Earn 90 plum® points

Prices and offers may vary in store


In stock online

Ships free on orders over $25

Available in stores


The inspiration for the NBC TV series "Rise," starring Josh Radnor, Auli'i Cravalho, and Rosie Perez — the incredible and true story of an extraordinary drama teacher who has changed the lives of thousands of students and inspired a town. By the author of The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino. 

Why would the multimillionaire producer of CatsThe 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.
Michael Sokolove is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of three previous books: The Ticket Out, Hustle, and Warrior Girls. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Title:Drama High: The Incredible True Story Of A Brilliant Teacher, A Struggling Town, And The Magic Of…Format:PaperbackProduct dimensions:368 pages, 8.24 × 5.45 × 0.77 inShipping dimensions:8.24 × 5.45 × 0.77 inPublished:October 7, 2014Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1594632804

ISBN - 13:9781594632808


Read from the Book

Harry S Truman High School, set on a slight incline, is a monument to utility, neither inviting nor forbidding. Buffered on three sides by athletic fields, the school rises to just one story. Its exterior is brick—not red brick but a dull yellowish hue, the color of putty. A framed black-and-white photograph of the nation’s thirty-third president occupies a wall just inside the front entrance. Several big trophy cases commemorate the school’s mostly unsuccessful athletic teams, and a big bulletin board lists the colleges that current seniors have been admitted to, along with the dollar amounts of scholarships they were awarded. From there, the building unfolds into a grid of long hallways, lined with lockers, that come together to form lonely interior courtyards. An energetic janitorial staff buffs the floors each afternoon to a high gloss. The classroom clocks tell the right time. Lou Volpe’s classroom, far from the main entrance, is furnished with old couches and living room chairs, donated stuff that otherwise might have gone to Goodwill or landfills. The bookshelves, window sills, radiators and all other flat surfaces are piled high with anthologies of plays, copies of scripts, and videotapes and soundtracks of Broadway productions. Several mobiles hang from the ceiling, some low enough that a tall person has to duck around them. It is distinctly his room, even without the huge banner that says, in red block letters, LOU IS BACK. The sign appeared out of nowhere some years ago—tacked up to the rear wall when Volpe arrived one morning—and he knew not to ask too much about its provenance though word did eventually filter down that some students had pilfered it from a local used car lot and that “Lou” was apparently one of the salesmen. “I really hope this other Lou doesn’t miss it too much,” Volpe says a mischievous grin when I ask him about it one day.As we talk, he is walking a circular route around the classroom, straightening and fluffing the upholstery on the couches and chairs, a ritual he performs numerous times a day, always in a clockwise direction. It is September 2010, about week into a new school year. The final afternoon bell has just sounded and the room is beginning to fill up with students arriving to audition for the fall play. “Yo, Volp,” a boy says as he walks past. “Hey, Krause,” he adds with a nod to Tracey Krause, a former student of Volpe’s and now a teacher at the school and his indispensable assistant director.Another boy breezes in and comments on Volpe’s attire, a frequent topic of conversation, and what looks to him like peace signs on Volpe’s belt. “Yes,” he says, “I got this belt at Woodstock. I was there, you know.” The student laughs, knowing that Volpe would never have been anywhere near the mud and chaos of Woodstock. Most students walk in and silently take seats. They have already endured a seven-hour school day. They plop down on the furniture and enter that resting mode of teenagers in which they are neither fully asleep nor awake but are nonetheless utterly aware. The more crowded the room gets—meaning the more competition there will be for parts—the quieter it becomes.   The play being auditoned on this day is called Good Boys and True. It is a daring choice for a high school, but a typical one for Volpe—a searingly intense drama in which a secretly recorded sex tape is discovered at a high school and a golden-boy athlete is implicated. In the play, the school’s football captain has picked up a girl who was working at a food court in a shopping mall, and on that day, the first day he meets her, without her knowledge he films them having sex together. The tape is found in a locker and then viewed by his teammates. The boy’s face in the tape is obscured, so his identity cannot be known for sure. The story moves forward in a series of painful unravelings—the school is scandalized; a family fractures; a gay relationship is revealed; a deep friendship between two boys rips apart. It is the kind of material that grips high school actors and audiences but terrifies school administrations. Volpe will be the first to put this drama on a high school stage. Some fifty students wait in the classroom to compete for just six parts—three female, three male. Volpe speaks for a moment before they begin. “I hate to use the word relevant, but this play is,” he says. “It feels very now. Like it’s something that could happen here, or just about anywhere.” The initial event in the play has the same effect as someone throwing a stone into a pond, he tells them. A calm is disturbed, even if it does not attract much notice at first. Ripples flow outward. It’s one of Volpe’s his favorite analogies. Another is the concept of doors opening—one door opens, revealing a secret of some kind, then another and another. Once opened, the doors cannot be closed. It is how he sees theater and life, including his own.  He makes clear what it will take to win a role. “We’re going to need to see how far you can go. We need to see the fire. If it’s anger, if it’s pain, you can’t be afraid to go to that place. I’m not talking about shouting. I mean something you find deep inside.” Everyone understands. Volpe plays are full emotional commitments. And they are competitive. Nobody gets a pass into a Truman production. You can be a lead in one play and get left out of the next. It happens all the time. “Volpe and Krause love the ‘new,’” is how one of the girls in the room that day puts it. “They love that new blood, that undiscovered talent, so you’ve always got to watch your back for what’s coming up behind you.” Just a week or so earlier, in New York, I had visited with Nicole Sabatini, a student of Volpe’s in the mid-1990s. We sat in a coffee shop in the basement of 30 Rockefeller Center. A slightly built former dancer, she worked upstairs as a vice president at Bravo. “A lot of us had an idea who Mr. Volpe was even before we got into high school,” she said. “You wanted to be part of what he created. You looked forward to it. My first year I auditioned for Little Shop of Horrors and didn’t get a part, but he told me it was going to be a good three years for me, that he was impressed by me. “I got leads in two musicals after that. Then in my senior year, I didn’t get a part in the drama, and then it got picked for the main stage at the national festival [the annual International Thespian Festival, a massive high school gathering each summer at the University of Nebraska]. I went to the festival as a stage manager. I had one job to do—press ‘Play’ on a cassette player to turn on some music. I’m not gonna lie—it hurt. But it was a big lesson for me. I had done my best at the auditions, but it wasn’t good enough. It happens sometimes when you’re around other people who are talented.”               The auditions are cold readings—Volpe or his assistant, Tracy Krause, calls out page numbers and students read the lines—but, in fact, nearly everyone has already gotten ahold of scripts and studied the story and parts. Some have read the play in their theater classes. “That was good, very good. Thank you,” Volpe says after a nervous tenth-grade girl finishes her reading. The auditions move quickly, except when Volpe slows the pace with observations about the material. “The setting here is a private school, very privileged,” he says. “I wanted you to see how the other half lives.” The dialogue includes talk of colleges, elite schools where a couple of the characters have applied. One of them is Dartmouth. Confronted with it on the page, the Truman students pronounce it DART-mouth. “It’s DART-myth,” Volpe points out a couple of times, but they keep making the same mistake. Oberlin College and Vassar are equally baffling. Volpe and Krause select ten students for callbacks the next day. Again, Volpe appeals to them to reach for intensity. “This is not a director’s play. I can only stage it so much. It’s an actor’s play. It’s up to you to elevate it.” Two boys step forward to read a scene. One is Zach Philippi, a six-foot-two, athletically built senior who has been in just one previous play. He is a baseball player, all-county, even a possible pro prospect. The other is senior Bobby Ryan, a little shorter and more slightly built, but also an athlete, a lacrosse player. He has been acting at Truman since his freshman year. Volpe gives them a scene from near the end of the play, with Philippi taking the role of the golden boy who has made the sex tape that caused the scandal. He accuses his best friend (Ryan) of informing on him to school authorities. The character played by Ryan is gay. The one played by Philippi ostensibly is not, though they have been sexually intimate. “If I kicked the shit out of you, would you answer me then?” Philippi asks, as the scene builds. “Go ahead,” Ryan says, opening his arms wide and putting his face forward, as if he wants to be hit. “Do it. Beat me to a pulp. Do it! I know you’re not scared to. I know you get off on shit like that.” The scene is a denouement, ugly and raw. “Do you know what they call you behind your back?” Philippi shouts, and then rattles off  a series of vulgar expressions. The boys have moved so close to each other that their noses almost touch. It is just an audition, but riveting nonetheless. “That’s good,” Volpe says. “That’s good.” There is some polite applause in the room, mostly from the girls, who will not have to compete for these two parts. Sitting in a corner of the room by herself is Mariela Castillo. Earlier in the day, she had gotten into a screaming argument in the school corridor with her boyfriend of two years, a varsity basketball player. She has her earbud in and her knees curled up under her. Volpe considers Mariela a triple threat—an accomplished singer, dancer and actor. “And,” he adds, “it doesn’t hurt that she’s absolutely stunning-looking.” But even though Mariela has been one of his stalwarts, she seems disengaged and in no shape to rise to the occasion and win a part. Castillo does not volunteer to come forward—she just sits there, radiating bad energy—and Volpe has to finally call on her after most of the others have auditioned. He asks her to read lines from the mother of the golden boy, a difficult role for any high schooler because she will have to play the part of an adult. Castillo is wearing tight jeans and a snug-fitting T-shirt. Before she comes to the middle of the room, she pulls on a tailored blue blazer that she had set down beside her. She ties her hair back, puts on a sophisticated-looking pair of eyeglasses. She takes a breath and seems to collect herself. “The scene on pages twenty-nine and thirty,” Volpe instructs. The passage comes in the play after the football coach has showed the mother the sex tape, and she confronts her son—a person she no longer recognizes. Castillo reads the lines with a cool, simmering anger: “I saw a boy, I saw you, lead that girl, onto what? Not even a bed, onto a mattress, on some floor . . . I saw you slap her . . . I saw you force her face onto the mattress. . . I swear, you were enjoying it.” Makeup and wardrobe would make Castillo even more convincing as a forty-five-year-old ER surgeon, which is what the mother is. But on this first reading, she calls forth distress, sadness, barely controlled rage. She seems to pull these layers from deep within, just as Volpe asked.     On a mid-November afternoon in 2001, a black stretch limousine set out from Manhattan, passed through the Lincoln Tunnel and headed south for fifty miles on the New Jersey Turnpike before crossing over the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania. Among its passengers—and the person for whom the trip had been organized—was Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the West End and Broadway producer of Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, blockbusters that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and afforded the producer a lavish, jet-setting lifestyle. He split his time between his apartments in London and New York, farmhouse in Provence, seaside home in Malta, and fifteen-thousand-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands. Queen Elizabeth knighted him on New Year’s Day 1996 for “contributions to musical theatre.” Cameron Mackintosh was headed to Levittown, Pennsylvania, and Truman High for a Lou Volpe production. His traveling companions—business associates who arranged this excursion—had fervent hopes for its success but were uneasy. It was once written of Mackintosh, “His gut is famous.” Meaning that he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t and how to make that known. By the measures that seem to matter most, Truman High is, at best, second-rate. Its students do not excel at standardized tests, and few of them ever go off to Ivy League colleges or other prestigious institutions, unless you put the U.S. military in that category—the school sends plenty of its graduates straight into the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The neighborhoods it draws from are often called blue-collar, but that is an outdated notion, one based on steady union jobs at U.S. Steel and other nearby industrial giants that are two decades gone. Parents of Truman students work at warehouses and call centers, and some supplement their incomes with shifts at fast-food restaurants. When Truman makes news, it’s usually for the wrong reasons, like when the class president couldn’t give his graduation speech and an empty chair was put in his place because he was the target of a gang hit and no one wanted gunfire at commencement. In the local lexicon, Truman High, in otherwise prosperous Bucks County, is “on the wrong side of Route 1.” It was where you did not want to be and where you’d leave if you hit the lottery. The high school has one principal mark of distinction: Volpe’s astoundingly successful drama program. Younger students know of him long before they reach Truman and hope to one day be in his shows. He is like the winning football coach in some down-on-its-luck Ohio or Texas town—a beacon, a sign that grand achievement was possible, albeit unlikely. Schools with vastly greater financial resources, boasting higher-achieving students born to wealthier parents, cannot match the quality and accomplishments of Truman Drama. No high school in American can. Volpe had joined Truman’s faculty at age twenty-one, and the night Cameron Mackintosh was to arrive was three decades into his career. He said more than once, “I just want to be remembered.” He hoped that something that occurred in his classroom or at a rehearsal—maybe something he said, an interaction between students, some spark of learning—would be carried forward and help someone live a richer life. He hoped for his students to come to some deeper understanding of themselves, for their lives to be more fulfilling, because they had once passed his way. And he was remembered. When Truman graduates stopped by the school to visit, it was always a good bet that they were were looking for Volpe. He was a kind of local celebrity in the way that a longtime educator can be—always recognized by someone at the supermarket—but he never sought or expected any wider acclaim. As the limousine approached Truman, it passed by a factory complex, the old 3M plant—Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. It was now called the Bristol Commerce Center, the sort of Orwellian name given to a place where commerce has ceased to exist. No cars were in the vast parking lot. No cars were in the vast parking lot. Out to the left side of the road was Bloomsdale, a ramshackle, all-black enclave that its residents, employing an advanced sense of irony, had long called “Hollywood.” Mackintosh and his entrouage were now entering Levittown proper, the postwar suburban colossus. The town’s main intersection, called Five Points, is dotted with check-cashing agencies and pawn shops. Most of the 17,000 homes, mass-produced by developer William Levitt in the mid-1950s, are still standing—in defiance of predictions that the ticky-tacky structures would not last—but many are in need of a new roof and a coat of paint. Levittown has never been a pretty place, even in its best days. It is a suburban prairie, an expanse of flat terrain once farmed for potatoes before it was planted with house upon house and little else. If you visited in spring or summer, you might ask, Does anyone in this place ever plant a flower? As the town has aged and everything has become weathered and faded—the houses, the old cars and pickups in the driveways, even some of the people—it can seem like Levittown is receding back into the earth. At the intersection of Green Lane and Mill Creek Road, the limo turned into the Truman High parking lot and was directed into the spot closest to the front door, the principal’s space. A sort of pre-theater buffet, cold cuts and soft drinks, had been set out for Mackintosh and his traveling party in the guidance office. Volpe scurried in briefly to meet the famous producer, but he had a cast to ready for a show and, in any case, was far too nervous to eat. As he would recall, “I was delirious. I was hysterical. I thought, How am I going to make it through this night? I was running all around, trying to keep the kids calm, but they were fine. I was the one who was a mess.” Some of the other teachers gamely made conversation with Mackintosh, but the chasm was too vast. What were they going to say to him? How are things in Malta?

Editorial Reviews

“Poignant...Captivating...[Sokolove] shines a heartening light on how one of those passionate heroes devoted himself...to educating, rather than training, young people.”—The New York Times Book Review “A good reporter can make almost any story interesting. A great reporter makes it blossom. With the kind of diligent, thorough and imaginative reporting not seen enough these days, Sokolove not only brings a teacher, his students and their community to life, he also opens the story to larger matters.”—The Washington Post   “Sokolove's reporting tells an incredible tale about a brilliant, demanding and subversive teacher who practices the best kind of magic--the kind that's real and that changes lives. Drama High is both provocative and heart-warming...an excellent book for teachers or anyone interested in education and the power of theater. A gutsy high school English teacher might even recommend it to his or her students. ”—USA Today    “Required reading: for young people who can learn more about the challenge and rewards of theatre, for parents who may well need the same background, for anyone who doubts the value of theatre as an educational and character-building activity not only for those who would become professionals, for those who want to spark reveries of their own experiences in high school drama....Imagine if all of Glee sustained the level of quality and heart that characterized the story lines between Kurt and his dad, and you'll get a closer approximation of what Drama High achieves.”—The Huffington Post “Sokolove sucks us in quickly....Drama High is a love letter to a brilliant educator and the crowd-pleasing tale of a quest for glory, but it's also an argument for arts education and a discussion of class.”—Newsday “An extraordinary book…a viscerally real reminder of the pain and excitement of being a teenager, an honest and compassionate discussion of class in America, a wondrous, lightning-in-a-bottle book.”—Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep “Part Glee, part Hoop Dreams, Drama High is a bravura performance, the true story of that teacher we all remember or wish we did, the one who pushes us to be better than we thought possible. You'll clap and cry at the end. Sokolove deserves a standing ovation.”—Elizabeth Weil, author of No Cheating, No Dying “What makes a great teacher—the kind who truly transforms lives? The answer lies between these covers, in Michael Sokolove's intimate portrait. This book ripples with emotion, with humor, with heart. Like a great performance, Drama High won't just move you. It will inspire you.”—Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx Is Burning     Praise for Michael Sokolove   “Sokolove is a natural literary stylist with the gifts of a social historian.”—The New York Times   “A terrific read, made to work by Sokolove’s insightful reporting and deft writing . . . a sad, powerful, thoughtful, totally engrossing work.”—Chicago Tribune   “A narrative defined by its compassionate, clear-eyed tone.” —Entertainment Weekly   “A first-class work of sound reporting.”—Roger Angell, The New Yorker