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Standing Up for Seniors

Strauss, area students team up to create “Senioritis,” a new student written musical.

It’s the affliction most high school students undergo and dread: Senioritis, when the weight of academic pressures and waning high school careers render fourth-year students unmotivated and miserable. But Bill Strauss, national director of the Cappies, and a select handful of area students have put a new spin on the academic affliction with their new student-written, original full-length musical, “Senioritis,” slated to make its debut at McLean High School and the Kennedy Center in early August and featuring a cast from the 2007 Cappies International Theater.

According to Strauss, a major motivation for creating the musical came from a desire for fresh stage material set in the context of today’s high school environment.

“’Grease’ and ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ are about their grandparents,” said Strauss, a McLean resident. “The creative team wanted this to be about, and by, teenagers — that shows what they think is important and funny.”

To do this, Strauss recruited students from around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year. With the focus of the musical undecided, the eight students that make up the show’s creative team began brainstorming last October.

“They were talking about grades, overzealous parents and having to meet expectations,” said Strauss. “Somebody hit upon the notion of senioritis.”

For co-book writer Miriam Engle, who at the time, was a senior at Robinson High School in Fairfax, the affliction was a timely topic.

“I think the point of senioritis is doing things you don’t want to for school,” said Engle, who will attend William and Mary in the upcoming academic year and currently manages publicity for “Senioritis.” “This is my life. I’m happy a lot of kids relate. Most importantly, the stress is important to deal with.”

OVER THE COURSE of eight months, from October through May, the students met with Strauss multiple times each week, first working on broad strokes and then gradually narrowing the plot of the script while also developing music and lyrics.

“It was a lot of just talking about what we were really going through as high school students,” said co-book writer Maggie Shaw, who will be a junior this year at Seton Junior-Senior High School in Manassas. “One of our assignments was just to notice everything.”

The result is a story that depicts the fall and rise of a group of seniors at the fictitious Erma Schmoe High School, who after being penalized for their lack of focus, rebel against authority and fight for a future of autonomy.

“They really loved it a lot,” said Denise Perrino, head of the McLean High School Theatre Department, where rehearsals have taken place. “I’ve been teaching for 28 years and it really speaks to the types of stress they deal with. I think it’s interesting that they come to the conclusion ‘I could have been having fun this whole time.’”

For the on-stage component, Strauss drew upon the pool of last year’s Cappie award-winning actors from the 16 programs across the United States and Canada, inviting the best actor and actresses in both drama and musical categories to perform in the debut of “Senioritis.” For Michael Sapp, a student from Orlando, Fla., the work is difficult, but rewarding.

“It’s hard, it’s demanding,” he said. “But we try to make the show best as possible. It’s so high school realistic.”

Maddie Underwood, a senior last year at T.C. Williams and soon-to-be freshman at the University of Chicago, was a co-lyricist on the creative team and is anticipating the show’s debut performance.

“I was a senior last year so I was going through it,” she said. “It’s really exciting. I want to see it all together. I think the actors are really good — and the music is really, really good.”

BUT “SENIORITIS” ISN’T slated to end after the final applause on the last night of performances. Having received an $18,000 grant from the Arts Council of Fairfax County to develop a film based on the show, the team will focus attention on transforming McLean High School into Erma Schmoe, where the film will be shot from Aug. 6 through Aug. 12. According to Strauss, Mark Rogers, head of the Centreville Theater Department, will be the producer-director of the film.

“We can’t throw the production money that Disney can but it will be fun and we’ll see what happens with the film,” said Strauss. “It’s just enjoyable. I do really want to see young kids propel themselves into pop-culture.”