Community rallies behind Washburn High School’s arts programs

(Left) Washburn students Carolie Bonneville-Nelson and Danita Todd. Credit:

And that song you’re hearing
is the neighborhood just cheering
you along

Doesn’t that sound nice? It is … and it isn’t.

As Benny sings “When You’re Home” in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “In the Heights,” Nina pivots with a frightened and angry “Don’t say that!” She is feeling lost amid the support (and resulting expectations) of her neighborhood.

Washburn High School, which will be performing that same musical this month, can relate. It has seen significant turmoil as the community’s support (and resulting expectations) were raised. However, those efforts have resulted in an arts program that is one of the most recognized in the state.

Last year’s spring musical, “Les Miserables,” won the Hennepin Theatre Trust Spotlight Award for Outstanding Overall Production. Seven students received awards for an Outstanding Performance and another five received an honorable mention. Most impressively, graduating senior Davis Brinker was the Triple Threat Award Winner.

Those awards reflect the community support (and resulting expectations) that Washburn has … enjoyed? Is that the right word? It seems that way if you talk to Vocal Music and Musical Theatre Director Nancy Lee.

“We couldn’t do this level of work without community,” she said. “[Like] the Washburn Arts Council and those parents who show up every Saturday to help. And tickets. And designs. And the whole thing. I mean, it’s a whole community that is behind what we do.”

It’s certainly not hard to find examples. Last year’s shows sold over 2,400 tickets. This year’s massive set is the result of about 500 volunteered man-hours of carpentry work by the cast, crew and parents. The Playbill is stuffed with ads by local sponsors. And the Washburn Fall Arts Gala this fall, in just one night, raised over $27,000 to support the music and visual arts department.

The achievements (and resulting expectations) don’t stop with the production of the spring musical. You can find the Visual Arts departments in art showcases in the Washburn Public Library, the Minneapolis Downtown Public Library and other local venues. The student orchestra also won a Spotlight Outstanding Performance Award for their work in Les Miserables. Several times this year, music department students have performed for crowds at the Dakota Jazz Club as part of the WHS Cabaret.

But there is little doubt that the spring musical is a chance for Washburn to show off for its neighborhood a bit. This year’s choice is especially apt for a diverse school that received a “Fresh Start” from the Minneapolis Public Schools six years ago. “Heights” is about a diverse community on the upper west side of Manhattan that is working to better themselves while holding on to their changing neighborhood.

“It’s a story about urban living, but there is no violence,” explains Lee. “It’s about love and tight communities and people watching out for each other. I’ve been applying for it ever since it’s been off-Broadway. And we finally got the rights to do it.”

The show also provides an opportunity to expand into some new areas and reach out to some new participants. “We’ve got a lot of hip-hop [dancers] from our school,” Lee revealed. “They’re amazing dancers. They’ve never sung. They’ve never been involved in anything. [And they’re] seniors! So we have a lot of first-timers in the show.”

But new doesn’t seem to scare these students, or these teachers, or this community. So much of what has already been accomplished was new sometime within the last six years. Washburn, like our heroine Nina, has had to follow a path that is far from straight. But the successes are irrefutable and the future seems even brighter. Perhaps Benny’s retort to Nina’s concerns best reflects the community’s attitude towards their local public school. 

But Nina please believe that when
you find your way again
you’re gonna change the world and then
we’re all gonna brag and say we knew her when
this was your home

It’s OK — go ahead and brag. Washburn’s art program has found its way and is rewarding its neighborhood’s support (and resulting expectations).

If you go …

If you would like to see for yourself Washburn’s Arts Program’s premier event, there are shows at 7 p.m. Feb. 19–21 and Feb. 26–28 and also 2 p.m. matinee shows on Sunday, Feb. 22 and Sunday, March 1. Visit “Washburn Arts Council” for links to buy reserved tickets.