Laura Benanti’s HOMESCHOOL MUSICAL on HBO Max Brings Pure Joy To A Dismal Year — Review
We all remember our senior year of high school. After paying your dues as an underclassman, it's finally your turn to rule the school. And for those of us in drama, the annual musical was our Christmas morning. I remember walking up to the cast list my Junior year and seeing I was cast as Harvey Johnson in Bye Bye Birdie; for those who are unfamiliar, he has a signature voice crack that I knew was going to take some time to perfect. From Seattle to Maine and everywhere in between, for many, high school theatre programs are a safe place to escape the dread of school and a haven to escape your reality and sing show tunes with your friends. The graduating high school class of 2020 received none of that.
When COVID-19 hit the United States, most schools shuttered in-person learning and switched to a virtual outlet for the remainder of the year. With that, so many opportunities, performances, and memories were lost. That is where Laura Benanti comes in; on stage and screen, she has dazzled audiences for years with star turns in Gypsy, She Loves Me, and My Fair Lady on Broadway and lately moonlighting as the First Lady on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it was a singular tweet that she sent out in the early days of this pandemic that might be her most meaningful action to date.
On March 13, a day after the shutdown was announced on Broadway, Benanti posted a tweet to her followers asking for video submissions from high schoolers as their performances were being cancelled — she wanted to be their audience. Expecting a couple dozen submissions, Benanti was overwhelmed with joy as thousands upon thousands started flooding her social media accounts. It was then that #SunshineSongs was born. Since quarantine began, she has held numerous virtual concerts to let students share their performances for audience members around the world and millions have tuned in.
In Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020, streaming on HBO Max starting December 17, World of Wonder, Benanti, and their team introduce seven talented graduated high school seniors in what is one of the most feel good hours of entertainment I have experienced this year. The new documentary special inspired by the #SunshineSongs movement showcases these teenagers and gives them a global platform to perform for the world. Completely self-shot and filmed remotely, we meet and hear about the struggles that these students and so many others have faced due to the ongoing global pandemic and calls for racial justice.
I did not imagine watching documentaries on the coronavirus especially as numbers in the country continue to rise on a daily basis. It’s a strange feeling to watch a film about the pandemic that you are currently living through — but if ever there is one to watch, it most certainly is this one. “These kids have brought me so much joy in this time,” Benanti states in the film. From a unique bilingual version of “Someday” from West Side Story to “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + The Machine, each of the seven students get their moment to shine with original covers of some of the most popular songs that could only be filmed with the creativity that the time spent in quarantine has let flourish.
One of the students we meet is 18-year old Annie from Indianapolis, Indiana. She talks about the importance of music in her life, and while she is unclear how exactly she will pursue it, she is determined that it will always be a guiding light. Her rendition of Billie Eilish’s “my future” is incredibly touching.
For these seven individuals, and so many other aspiring young artists around the world, Benanti is an idol — and she knows it. She uses her following to help create the change she wants to see in the world we are all better off for it. It’s great to watch her don her journalistic cap and chat with these students about their experiences, the importance of art, and how their creativity continues to grow.
Watching what these students have been able to accomplish while stuck inside of their homes over the past several months gives me hope for the future as we continue to ride out this pandemic.