Les Miserables at CAPA – it almost didn’t happen

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I had the privilege of seeing Les Miserables at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) Thursday night.

I’ve seen Les Miz probably eight times, starting with the original Broadway cast more than two decades ago and, more recently, at two other high schools. I saw (and wrote about for the Inquirer) the first-ever production of the adapted scholastic version at Truman High School in Bristol.

In some ways – particularly in the raw emotional power of watching a young, extremely talented, multi-racial cast interpret this classic work about oppression and justice, love, and redemption – CAPA’s Les Miz was as good as any of them.

But, speaking of justice, this incredible show almost didn’t happen.

The School District’s budget crisis has put us here: The city’s premiere showcase school for performing arts cannot afford to do performing arts without private donations. In this case, parents and the William Penn Foundation came to the rescue.

When the District made mid-year budget cuts back in December and January, CAPA lost $250,000, according to Home and School Association president Rob Hill. For the first time in 16 years, the annual spring musical was in jeopardy.

This show requires, among other things, 150 costumes and a complicated set. To mount a production like this runs about $50,000. Parents always contributed through ticket sales and – if they could afford it – by assuming the cost of their child’s costume.

But this was different. Extracurricular and other "discretionary" money, which would normally be used to pay expenses for the 12 productions CAPA mounts in any given year, had dried up.

So Hill and the Home and School group swung into action. Although the parents stepped up – and CAPA’s parents have more resources as a group than those at many other schools – it took the William Penn grant to ultimately make the show happen.

"William Penn supports arts education in the schools," said William Penn president Jeremy Nowak. (Disclosure: William Penn is also a major funder of the Notebook.)

"CAPA is a great place with a wonderful student body and dedicated staff. We responded to an emergency funding problem but, more importantly, we gave them some resources to help them fundraise for the future. As part of the Avenue of the Arts, we would love to see CAPA tap into some of the philanthropy and energy that animates South Broad Street."

Philanthropy is great. But the other goal should be that all schools, not just CAPA, have public funding that acknowledges the need to provide robust arts education to all students.