Think of the musical Ranked as a cutthroat “Hunger Games”-style competition set in high school. In this dystopian world, an academic leaderboard determines everything about a student’s future and self-worth. Fail to place high enough, and failure in life is guaranteed.
So, the students do all they can to rise to the top, from sacrificing friendships to leaning on parents who pay for inflated grades. And in the face of incredible pressures, the students sing in Ranked about power struggles, self-esteem and the expectations of being a young person in this age of overachieving.
UC Davis played a critical part of bringing this acclaimed musical to life.
The book was written by alumnus Kyle Holmes ’10, Cred. ’11, M.A. ’12, and developed at UC Davis in part with Mindy Cooper, professor of theatre and dance. Since its 2018 premiere, Ranked has been licensed by dozens of theaters around the world and is the subject of a 2022 HBO documentary, My So-Called High School Rank.
Holmes tapped into his own experiences as an anxious teenager to develop some of the ideas behind Ranked. His work as the director of theatre arts at Granite Bay High School in the Sacramento area put him even deeper into the current mindsets of teens.
“You would have kids crying, pulling their hair out and self-harming,” said Holmes. “It was pretty jarring to me as theater teacher when I was trying to give students what I got growing up, which was freedom and low stakes and permission to be wrong. I had a 3.6 [GPA] in high school, which is not reflective of the world of Ranked.”
With music and lyrics by David Taylor Gomes, Ranked debuted at Granite Bay High School in 2019. The timing couldn’t have been more poignant. Just a few weeks before, the college admissions scandal dubbed “Varsity Blues” was in the headlines. Federal prosecutors revealed that more than 50 people were part of a conspiracy that included bribing university officials and test fraud on college entrance exams.
The news hit especially close to home. One of the scandal’s ringleaders, Rick Singer, had previously worked with Granite Bay High School students as a private college counselor.
“When the scandal broke, we were fixated that our play opens in two to three weeks,” said Holmes. “In one of the cliffhangers, a kid finds out that their parent had paid for grades. It was crazy our students predicted what he was doing.”
Ranked soon earned national press with its shades of the Varsity Blues scandal. But more importantly to Holmes, it connected with young people. Ranked has been licensed to more than 75 theaters around the world, with many performances at schools.
The HBO documentary My So-Called High School Rank captures rehearsals and performances of the musical across the country, and how it was adapted online during the initial months of the COVID-19 epidemic.
“It started as a documentary for the college admission scandal then pivoted,” said Holmes. “What it turned into is an hour-and-a-half look at what it is to be a young person today through the lens of Ranked.”
Since the debut of Ranked, Holmes and Gomes co-founded a licensing company, Uproar Theatrics, that currently has 26 theatrical productions in its catalog. Holmes said he is also hopeful that Ranked can be developed into a commercial production on Broadway.
“I hope people come away from seeing Ranked with a newfound appreciation of what young people go through,” said Holmes. “And I hope they contemplate and rethink the larger machine of academics and what our roles are.”