Herndon High School drama students are making history.
Not only are they producing the 80-member cast musical "Les Miserables" — its first performance in western Fairfax County — but, in addition, they are producing the 20-member cast drama "Go Ask Alice" simultaneously.
"This is the first time we've done it like this," said HHS drama teacher John Whapham. "I wanted to challenge them and they are taking the leadership and running with it." At the start of the school year Whapham had slated his advanced drama students to perform "Go Ask Alice" — a female dominated cast — and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat" to be the school-wide production for the spring season.
But, following the One-Act play festival, Whapham decided that line-up was too easy.
"There aren't a lot of high schools that do ['Les Miserables'] because it's so challenging," said Whapham. "It's not challenging to learn, but it's harder to sing because so much of it is singing — it's two-and-a-half hours of singing."
He said although difficult, because the songs are so compelling, if the students can master them the production will be a success.
But, balancing that with rehearsing for a depressing drama and making up lost time for snow days, has the cast and crew on a short timeline.
"We have 10 days after spring break for 'Go Ask Alice'," he said, adding they were on schedule. "We are behind on rehearsals though for 'Les Mis' because of the snow days."
Because his students breezed through the One-Acts and showed little to no fatigue, Whapham said he chose the lengthy musical to continue with the momentum.
"Once I got into gear and reflected on what the kids have learned," he said, "I decided to push them more."
After holding auditions — where 120 students came out, 40 of which were males — Whapham selected 80 students to perform, 20 of whom are in "Go Ask Alice."
"Originally I was dubious about the ability of a high school to put on this production," he said about "Les Miserables." "But I am not concerned about 'Les Mis' at all — they're building their way up."
FOR JUNIOR Samantha Gordon, not only is she excited because she is playing the lead role of "Alice" in the spring drama, but she is also performing in "Les Miserables" — a play she has loved since she was eight years old.
"I am ecstatic about 'Les Mis' because it's such an amazing musical," she said, adding she's had the soundtrack for years. "I have always wanted to do it, to be involved with it, it's just an amazing production."
But, she warned, because students are working on both plays, the cast of "Go Ask Alice" has to be careful.
"It's difficult to get everyone focused all at once," she said. "We've been working hard, but it's difficult because it gets overshadowed a bit."
In addition, she said because the play has a depressing theme, sometimes it's hard to get excited about playing a teenage girl addicted to drugs who eventually ends up dying.
"I have done depressing scenes before, but not an entire play," she said. "I read the script and imagined myself in her place and imagine myself spiraling downward."
As a member of the ensemble in "Les Miserables," Gordon said she is focusing most of her energy on her principal role as "Alice."
"I think we all can relate to it, but it's an uncomfortable subject to deal with, especially for teenagers, because it's a topic that's under the table a little bit," said Gordon about the heavy drug addiction theme. "It shows that some parents, no matter how involved they are, don't really know what kids are getting into."
Senior John Daniel, cast member and father to "Alice" in the drama, said he enjoys the balancing act between the two, very different, plays.
"It's not too bad," he said, "it's cool because we're working with both ends of the spectrum."
Daniel, who played principal characters in the past, surprised Whapham this spring when he tried out for a principal role not only in "Go Ask Alice" but also "Les Miserables."
"He's a straight actor and he shocked us in his singing ability," said Whapham. "He's done two musicals before but he was always adamant about being in the ensemble."
"Initially I just wanted to try out and see what I could get," said Daniel. "I think the part that really threw [Whapham] for a loop was that I could actually sing."
Playing Thenardier, Daniel said the humor of his character helps him blow off steam after playing the father of a depressed child.
"With [my] serious role in 'Inherit the Wind', I can get a little bit better at playing serious roles," he said about his fall play performance. "With Thenardier, he's my outlet."
And with rehearsing two large roles for two major productions, Daniel needs that outlet.
"It's overwhelming, there's so much theater going through my head," he said. "Right now I am more focused on 'Les Mis' than I should be, and 'Go Ask Alice' comes up sooner."
SCHEDULED TO OPEN April 8 and 9, the cast of "Go Ask Alice" said they are feeling the pressure to get things done.
"It's kinda chaotic, but it's fun," said sophomore Emma Jasper who plays "Alice's" mother.
Jasper said she does not feel like the play is being overshadowed by the time consuming musical, adding "Whapham's good about that, he'll make sure it's not overlooked."
Whapham said although his students' energy levels are high, it's their attention-levels he has to watch.
"It's been challenging to stay focused on both simultaneously," he said, adding he has asked the cast of "Go Ask Alice" to do a lot more peer-directing than they have in the past.
"It's difficult because we are focused on 'Les Mis,' but we can pull it off because we've done harder shows," said Jasper. "At the time we thought 'Into the Woods' was tricky, but then you look at 'Les Mis' and 'Into the Woods' seems easy."
Whapham said because the play is rarely performed at the high school level, the students are stepping up to the challenge.
"The kids recognize this is not a show they have the opportunity to do very often," he said.
He added in respect to Cappie Awards, performing "Les Miserables" was not the best award-winning move because three high school's produced it last year and it was awarded as the best musical performance.
"With a show like this it's more about the group effort and the group you have," he said. "It hasn't been done in this half of the county and it's a great opportunity for people around here to see it."
In addition, he said there are 100 to 110 Cappie critics already signed up to view it.
"Awards are awards," he said. "But it's more about the group than winning awards."
Daniel said he agreed, adding even though it is his last year of performing with the high school before he graduates, he hasn't much thought to the awards.
"If I know Whapham, and I like to think I do," he said. "He pulled off 'Into the Woods' last year — 'Les Mis' is going to be awesome."