Art Imitates Current Politics in I.S. 276 Musical About Louis XV's France

Catarina Cereja, right, is Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, in a rap battle scene between the peasants and the nobles, each accusing the other of being "bloodsuckers," bleeding the country dry. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 06, 2017

School plays are not known for their political punch, but the one performed recently by I.S. 276 after-school students about a national leader who heartlessly rules over a country rife with economic and social injustices struck a familiar chord.

This leader in question was France’s King Louis XV and the show, “Royal Blood: Louis XV(AMPIRE),” was an original musical jointly produced by the Waterwell Drama Program and Manhattan Youth’s after-school program.

Despite the absurd antics that you would expect from a middle school production, as well as the occasional “Hamilton” hip-hop influences, the plot did spring from actual historical events in 1750s France. To the delight of the cast, vampire hysteria played a role. (In this story, poor children are rounded up and put in prisons or shipped away, their disappearances thought by their peasant parents to be the work of the king, who wished to suck their blood.) Rousseau and Voltaire were on hand to offer some Revolution-inspiring philosophy.

Pre-revolutionary, 18th-century France was a useful period for the musical, said Kevin Townley, who wrote the book, “not only because vampires are fun and campy and kids like the grim stuff, but also because those philosophers were asking questions we are asking ourselves: Are we going to succumb to hysteria and suppression and turn against each other or are we going to use the best of human intelligence and, they would say, reason to come together and improve humanity.”

(In the show’s finale, France’s huddled masses go to a country in the New World where they will be welcomed. Hint: It is just north of the future U.S.)

Waterwell began working with the students early in the school year, first on acting and singing, then on games and improvisation that came to inform Townley’s script and the original songs by Josh Franklin.

“When we were working with them it was during the campaign season and no one could escape all of that activity,” said Townley, who noted that many of the scenes the kids made up had to do with aristocracy and kings and revolution.

“It was really amazing to watch them explore those connections between this fun and sort of ridiculous story with the really obvious relation to the current social climate,” said Mari Vial-Golden, who directed the show. “And ultimately it was about issues of social justice and equality and morality, and are we looking out for the people around us.”

“Royal Blood” is the second after-school production by Manhattan Youth and Waterwell. They have also teamed up for Manhattan Youth’s summer program for the past two years.

“This is giving the kids such a way to get involved in the actual theater process, in thinking about the script writing and song writing and choreography and directing,” said Leyna Madison, Manhattan Youth’s education director. “We think it’s great to give the kids a voice.”