When harkening back to the days of high school, it can seem like everyone lived the same experience doing the exact same deeply earnest theater productions. Turns out, it doesn’t just seem like it—we did.
NPR decided to dig into the high school plays and musicals with the help of Dramatics, a magazine for theater students and teachers. The mag has published an annual ranking of the most popular productions since 1938, and once they got a hold of the hard copies, the folks at NPR compiled the lists and scored shows according to their rank every year (15 points to the top spot, 14 to the second most popular, and one point to everything that ranked beyond 14th).
It’s the first time the data has been compiled, and the findings show that the last 76 years of high school plays have been dominated by two works: Our Town and You Can't Take It With You. Here’s a partial list from the data.
Most Popular High School Play, By Decade
1940s: You Can’t Take It With You
1950s: Our Town
1960s: Our Town
1970s: You Can’t Take It With You
1980s: You Can’t Take It With You
1990s: Our Town
2000s: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
2010s: Almost, Maine
You can see the top six for every decade in the original post, as well as color-coded data on when the plays were first written or produced. Most come from sometime between the 1930s and 1950s.
Don Corathers, the editor of Dramatics, told NPR that the reason those two are so popular is largely about what works in the high school setting: "Most high school teachers need a big cast, lots of female roles, and something that won't scare your grandma," he said.
What’s clear is that popular plays have a lot of staying power inside the walls of adolescent academia, as do top musicals, though new productions seem to have an easier time edging their way in.
The Most Popular High School Musical, By Decade
1980s: Bye Bye Birdie
1990s: Bye Bye Birdie
2000s: Guys and Dolls
2010s: Beauty and the Beast
In addition to the rankings, NPR also has graphics to see how the top works rank over time. They note in the post that the popularity of productions is also dependent on licensing, which means that some works that could’ve been popular might just be getting shut out. Additionally, the rankings in Dramatics aren’t comprehensive, as the Educational Theater Association only polls its members. In 1938 it had 500 members and today it has close to 5000—less than half of the estimated 12,000 high schools in the U.S. with drama programs.