Scenes from Home
How a Bethesda author’s 2013 book about his high school inspired the NBC drama Rise
In one significant way, Bethesda writer Michael Sokolove has surpassed renowned novelist Thomas Wolfe. That literary giant believed that you can’t go home again.
But Sokolove did. For 2½ years, he repeatedly traveled the 161 miles between Bethesda and his childhood home of Levittown, Pennsylvania, a once thriving steel city. His task was to write about the legendary teacher and students in the theater program at Sokolove’s old high school.
Wolfe believed that if a writer honestly describes the places and people he knows well, the exposure could result in anger and death threats. But Sokolove’s clear-eyed portrayal of teacher Lou Volpe and the transformation he wrought at Harry S. Truman High School has been embraced. Not only is the Levittown community proud of Sokolove’s 2013 book, Drama High, but his work is the basis for last season’s NBC drama Rise, starring Josh Radnor and Rosie Perez.
The series was brought from Sokolove’s pages to a Brooklyn soundstage by two entertainment dynamos: Jason Katims, who created NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and Jeffrey Seller, a producer of Broadway’s Hamilton. “I’ve had books optioned before, but usually nothing happens,” Sokolove says. “This time, Jeffrey Seller showed Lou and me that his copy of the book was dog-eared with notes all over it. Jeffrey had a high school drama teacher who saved his life, so this story resonated. For Lou, meeting Jeffrey was like meeting Babe Ruth.”
Sokolove, 61, was an athlete in high school, not a theater kid. But he took Advanced English with Volpe, now 70, and connected with him, occasionally staying in touch. Using skills first developed in Volpe’s class, Sokolove started writing about crime, politics and sports at The Trenton Times, moving on to the Philadelphia Daily News, The Cincinnati Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He now has four books to his credit—he wrote two others with University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari—and is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
It wasn’t until Volpe asked him to return to Truman High in 2010 to give a graduation speech that Sokolove recognized the small miracle the teacher had created in the struggling factory town. The drama program at the public high school is so accomplished that Broadway producers, including Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the brains behind Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, travel to Truman to see its productions. The licensing powerhouse Music Theatre International comes to Truman to see if edgy productions, like Rent and Spring Awakening, can work on a high school stage. One out of every five students at Truman auditions for plays, and that popularity cuts across all the usually rigid high school groups.
“Levittown was a place I had never loved, but Ann convinced me I had to write this story,” Sokolove says. His wife, Ann Gerhart, is a senior editor at The Washington Post. The couple has lived in Bethesda for 22 years, raising three now-grown children.
For Sokolove, going home was not risk-free. “My biggest fear was: What if Lou wasn’t all that? What if he was just a guy?” he says. Spending more than two years watching Volpe stage the raw drama Good Boys and True and the musical Spring Awakening, Sokolove realized there was a strong story there. “When it was clear the students accepted me as a fly on the wall, I was elated,” he says. “Just hanging out with them was the way the story succeeded.