Standing in Theatre Nova on Saturday night, Ann Arbor Community High School teacher Quinn Strassel welcomed dozens of audience members to a staged reading of the musical he spent the summer crafting. His subject: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whom he dubs “the most controversial woman in the world” in the play’s opening number.
Strassel wrote and directed “Betsy DeVos! The Musical!” over the summer. DeVos — a prominent Republican donor and an advocate of charter schools — is heavily caricatured in the play and portrayed as a die-hard antagonist of public schools.
Strassel said he uses humor to tackle complicated topics, adding that he hopes the show demonstrates the importance of public education as well as critically talking about proposals DeVos has put forward.
“I hope it starts a new conversation about public schools,” Strassel said. “I think sometimes humor can help tackle complex and difficult issues in public schools. I think public school policy is complicated, and people of every political persuasion, have difficulty making sense of it — and DeVos advocated for guns in schools. I feel like we need to talk about that.”
The show focuses on a fictional, for-profit charter school and some of Strassel’s former students are part of the ensemble. Strassel cast Diane Hill, his former Ypsilanti High School drama teacher, as DeVos. Strassal plays DeVos’ husband Dick, the millionaire son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, as well as her brother Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a private military contractor known in part for its role in a 2007 shooting of unarmed civilians in Iraq. Some of the songs include “Jesus Wants Me to be Rich” and “The Best Kind of Teacher is a Teacher with a Gun.”
Strassel concedes the play is a bit extreme, writing on his GoFundMe page the show is “completely ridiculous.”
“She says things that sound a little ridiculous … so I played off of that for sure,” Strassel said. “But on the other hand, there are some sympathetic moments. You know, in a way, some of my friends didn’t like the fact that I mentioned anything positive about her, but I think the story is better when you find the nuance in the character. So yeah, it’s very silly, and it’s a parody, but I’m going to try to work in some complexity.”
Strassel said he tried to see things from DeVos’s point of view when he was writing the musical.
“I think that there are examples of Betsy trying to help individual students, and I tell that in the story,” Strassel said. “There’s one student in the story who she pays for tuition to a private school, and that’s something that she has done in public schools — she pulled them out and sent them to private school. But I also point out the flaw in that. Though she may have good intentions for that kid, she is pulling money out of the public school system and showing her lack of faith and in public schools.”
DeVos has been criticized by public school advocates for considering arming teachers and for requesting to cut billions of dollars from the Department of Education’s budget. DeVos said she planned instead to bolster scholarships to private school scholarships.
In a statement issued in March, DeVos defended the Trump administration’s budget request for the 2020 fiscal year, which would have cut approximately $7 billion in funding compared with 2019.
“This budget at its core is about education freedom,” DeVos said. “Freedom for America’s students to pursue their life-long learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them, freedom for teachers to develop their talents and pursue their passions, and freedom from the top-down ‘Washington knows best’ approach that has proven ineffective and even harmful to students.”
Like DeVos, Strassel has his own budget priorities. He said he hopes to take “Betsy DeVos! The Musical!” even further than the staged reading, and aims to raise $12,500 to bring the play to different cities next summer before the 2020 election.
“In the short run, I’d like to get some of the songs onto the internet, and sort of shared digitally,” Strassel said. “But my big, long-term goal is a fully realized professional production next summer. How that happens, I think it could be a local thing, but I’m also open to the idea that could be a small tour, or maybe even that the show could be adopted by a professional theatre elsewhere, and I’m really open to that. I’m kind of interested to see where it takes me.”