Welcome to the ninth article in our Pride series for the month of June! Each day we will be highlighting a different LGBTQ+ character who we think is a great example of representation, dynamic characterization, and overall badassery. Check out the rest of the series here.
Rise, or “Friday Night Glee,” was a short-lived drama that aired on NBC in the Spring of 2018. Based on a true story, the show was about an underfunded, under appreciated drama program at a run of the mill high school. Mr. Mazzuchelli (Mr. Mazzu,) an English teacher at the school played by Josh Radnor, decides that he wants to take over the drama department, and rather than do yet another production of Grease, they should try their hand at the 2006 Tony Award winning musical, Spring Awakening.
For those who may not know, Spring Awakening is not your everyday musical. Themes include child abuse, sexual awakening, teenage pregnancy, masturbation, suicide, abortion, and more. It’s a difficult show to pull off at a high school with conservative parents and an overbearing PTO, and this is a main plot point in the show. And it brings everything down a bit. Luckily, Michael is a shining light that uplifts the entire show.
Michael, played by Ellie Desautels, is introduced in the first episode of the series as Mr. Mazzu recruits students for the production. He hears Michael singing in the choir and asks if he wants to audition for the role of Melchior, the third biggest role in the show. Immediately, this worried me. Already it was obvious that the show was paralleling each student to their character in Spring Awakening, and Melchior commits suicide in the second act. I was worried that the show would just be the next in the line of showing all trans people to be depressed and struggling. Happily, I could not have been more wrong.
The first and second episode establish that the teachers and students are asking Michael what he wants to go by, and everyone goes with it. When he walks into the men’s dressing room, all of the students just go with it. When the theater kids inadvertently show up at a football party and one of the football students is horrifically transphobic to him, all of the theater kids – including the football recruit starring in the show – stand up for him. He is totally accepted, and at the same time it isn’t a big deal. For once, a show had a trans character without having to have some big trans storyline. Michael could just be Michael.
Ellie Desautels is also a big deal. They are only the second out nonbinary actor to star in a network television program. In an interview with People, they said, “I’ve always wanted to be a part of bettering trans representation. So the role of Michael was really going to be perfect for me to be able to act, do what I love and then do that activist work in improving representation. I’m so lucky that I got a trans role to be the spark that started my career.” I am looking forward to seeing Ellie’s next work as well as more nonbinary and trans representation in casting choices.
Throughout the show, Michael serves as comic relief in some scenes, but mostly as a friend. About halfway through the season, a storyline emerges between Michael and another student in the production, Sasha. The two were close for many years, but as high school started and Michael began to transition, they drifted apart. Through the musical, and some shocking news, the two rekindle their friendship, and from the finale – perhaps it will end up being something more.
Speaking of the finale, it’s the final episode where we really get to see Michael shine. Rise focused a good chunk of its time on Lilette and Robbie, the two main characters, meaning even though Michael was playing the third biggest part, many of his scenes were not shown until the last episode. Whether it was a duet with the character Elsa or the climax of the show with Lilette and Robbie, Michael was a star all around. I would have loved to see more of him, but without a second season from NBC, he may just have to live on in our hearts.
Do you have a character spotlight suggestion? Leave it in the comments down below!