Why NBC Changed The Lead Character On “Rise” From Gay To Straight

"I really felt like I needed to make it my own story.”

NBC’s new musical series, Rise—think Friday Night Lights meet Glee—is already making headlines even before the first episode premieres because it was revealed at the Television Critics Association panel that the show’s main character is not gay like he is in the book the show is based on.

Rise is inspired by the book, Drama High, based on the true story of Lou Volpe, a teacher who mounted a production of Spring Awakening at his high school in a small, blue-collar town.

Peter Kramer/NBC

In real life Volpe was closeted, and came out as gay later in life—but in Rise the character based on him, Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), won’t come out because he won’t be closeted. Series executive producer Jason Katims decided to make Lou a straight family man.

“We took [the book] as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it my own story,” Katims said this week at the TCA panel. “With Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination. Not just in terms of gay or straight, but in terms of the family structure.”

Critics were quick with their responses once they learned of the sexuality change to the show’s lead character.

“A story about a closeted gay man putting on Spring Awakening sounds a lot more interesting than a story about another Mr. Schue,” tweeted The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III, referring to the straight theater teacher from Glee.

Katims, who is known as the man behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, promised that sexuality and LGBT issues would be dealt with on Rise—which would be hard to avoid since the musical the school is mounting, Spring Awakening, is all about teenagers discovering their sexuality and features a gay storyline.

Peter Kramer/NBC

“I was inspired to tell the story of Michael (Ellie Desautels), this transgender character, and Simon (Ted Sutherland) who’s dealing with his sexuality and growing up in a very conservative religious family,” explained Katims.

“Those stories felt like they resonated with me as a storyteller, I wanted to lean into that.”

Making the character based on Volpe straight is disappointing, but Hollywood has a history of changing queer characters from books straight when the stories are adapted for the screen.

Paul Varjak was gay in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s novella, but then turned straight when George Peppard played him in the film version, and the lesbian elements from The Color Purple were largely removed when Steven Spielberg brought the book to the big screen—just two of many examples.

Without the closeted teacher will you watch Rise when it premieres March 20 on NBC?

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."