“Rise” follows Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor) as he helps revitalize the high school theater department in a working-class town. The series is based on Michael Sokolove’s 2014 book, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.
Mazzuchelli, in turn, is loosely based on Lou Volpe, who was the drama director at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, before retiring in 2013. There has been one critical change: Although Volpe came out as gay late in his career, Mazzuchelli will be portrayed on “Rise” as a straight family man.
Executive producer Jason Katims explained the decision to change the sexuality of his main character at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour on Tuesday.
“I hope and believe that we carry a lot of [Volpe’s] spirit into the show. We took that as inspiration,” Katims said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. However, the former “Friday Night Lights” writer and executive producer added, “I felt like I needed to make it my own story.”
“With Lou’s family, there’s a lot of reimagination — not just if he’s gay or straight, but the family structure,” Katims continued. “It was important to honor the source material, but to also make it my own so we’d be able to lean into it.”
News of the change angered some people, who accused the “Rise” team of “straight-washing” the lead character.
Other critics wondered why a straight man would be as determined to stage the 2006 musical “Spring Awakening” ― which broke fresh ground for its portrayal of teenage sexuality, including a relationship between two male teens ― as Mazzuchelli is in the first season of “Rise.”
Katims stressed Tuesday that “Rise” will explore LGBTQ themes with some of its other characters. One student (played by Ellie Desautels) identifies as transgender, while another (played by Ted Sutherland) is being raised in a conservative religious household while coming to terms with his sexuality.
“Those stories resonated with me as a storyteller,” Katims said, “and I wanted to lean into that.”
Catch a sneak peek at the series, which debuts March 13, in the trailer above.
UPDATE: Katims, along with executive producers Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez, released the following statement to Entertainment Weekly Jan. 13 regarding the controversy:
The misinterpretation by some of what we’ve done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals. We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see ‘Rise,’ which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.