Opening night always means butterflies when you’re a lead actor in your high school musical. But before he took the South Portland High School stage Friday evening as the irrepressible Jimmy Smith in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Ethan Benevides wasn’t just nervous.

“I was scared,” said Benevides, a tall, lanky junior with more than enough presence to fill an 800-seat auditorium. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out.”

Ditto for Paige Doane, who plays wide-eyed Millie Dillmount in the high-energy tale of New York City circa 1922.

“I was so worried,” she said. “This is my senior year — and I just wanted everything to be fine.”

Don’t get them wrong. Along with their 45 fellow cast members, these kids had their parts down pat.

It was the audience — or the potential lack thereof — that had them sweating bullets.

Cue the backstory:

Back in September, as they have for the past 24 years, co-directors Steve and Jane Filieo put out the casting call for the high school’s annual musical. As they surveyed the talent for this year (nobody gets turned away), the Filieos decided “Cinderella” — with Doane as Cinderella and Benevides as the charming young prince — would be the perfect fit.

And so, as they’ve done so many times before, they applied for a licensing contract with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatre Library in New York City, which owns the rights to “Cinderella.”

A week went by with no response.

Another week passed. Still nothing.

Finally, anxious to start production, the Filieos called to see what was taking so long.

“You’ve been declined,” the licensing agent told them.

Why?

Because “Cinderella” was scheduled to open on Broadway in March, that’s why. And South Portland High School, with its cavernous auditorium, was seen as competition with the professional production.

Come again? A high school play, four states and 300-plus miles from the Broadway Theatre, posed enough of a threat to deny these kids a performance license?

“I was flattered,” Steve Filieo said dryly.

He was also seriously behind schedule and in need of a new musical — one that would fit the principal actors who’d been selected for “Cinderella.”

“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” winner of six Tony Awards during its run on Broadway from 2002 to 2004, fit the bill. So off the Filieos went to Music Theatre International, which owns the rights to that production.

More silence.

By now, the Filieos had scrapped any hopes of having the musical ready for the traditional run over the first two weekends in February. Instead, they pushed the schedule back to three performances this weekend and, after a break for Easter, three more on the weekend of April 4-5.

But they needed that license. And when they finally called Music Theatre International to see what was taking so long, another trap door opened.

It seems the Ogunquit Playhouse plans to put on “Thoroughly Modern Millie” this June, with Sally Struthers as the diabolical dragon lady Mrs. Meers. And while the licensing agency did give South Portland High School the green light to go ahead with its production, they added one very problematic stipulation.

“They said ‘You can’t do any advertising,’ ” Filieo recalled. “The only publicity we could do had to be in-school.”

Meaning no posters in store windows all over town. No calendar listing in local newspapers. No way to let the world know that this year’s musical, already knocked off-schedule by almost two months, was even happening.

A little background on South Portland High’s musicals: They’re completely self-funded, they engage a wide range of kids who might otherwise have little to do, and they traditionally pack the auditorium with parents, fellow students, teachers, alumni and more than a few folks with no direct connection to the school other than their love of a good show.

How good? A few years ago, some 250 people were turned away from a sold-out finale of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Put more simply, this rendition of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” like its two dozen predecessors, has very little to do with market penetration — and everything to do with community participation.

Last week, the local weekly “Current” ran a front-page story on the musical’s plight. The kids, meanwhile, took to their Facebook pages to spread the word — after all, nobody put the kibosh on social media.

But alas, as the curtain rose Friday evening, the auditorium was less than half full. Didn’t matter — from stellar performances by Doane, Benevides and company right down to a stage crew that pulled off endless scene changes without a hitch and an orchestra that missed nary a beat, the crowd grew steadily in noise if not number.

(Among my favorite moments: James Falconer and Matt Amadei, as brothers Ching Ho and Bun Foo, and Emma Dadmun as Mrs. Meers bringing down the house with their Chinese version of the song “Mammy.” Top that, Sally Struthers.)

But here’s the truly tough part. There are still many, many tickets available for Sunday’s 2 p.m. matinee (that’s today), not to mention three more performances on Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5. And since these kids still can’t advertise, well, let’s just say you’re looking at it.

So log on to www.myticketportal.com or call 767-3266 and see for yourself why all this hand-wringing over licensing obscures an infinitely more important truth: Grassroots support for the arts springs not from the high-priced mezzanines of Manhattan, but rather from the front-row seats of school auditoriums all over Maine and beyond.

And if you need proof of that, consider what happened backstage moments after Friday’s final curtain fell and an extended standing ovation subsided.

Lining both sides of a long, narrow hallway, the cast and crew of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” raised their hands to form a human archway. Through it, hunched over and screaming at the top of their lungs, ran the principal actors and actresses until they reached the closed door to the lobby.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven … three, two, ONE!!!” they shouted in unison.

Then, nervous no more, they threw open the door and disappeared into a sea of floral bouquets, high fives and bear hugs from friends, relatives and parents who knew, full house or no full house, that they’d just witnessed something magical.

Jennifer Benevides, Ethan’s mom, burst into tears at the sight of her son.

“I’m so, so proud of you,” she said, wrapping her all-time-favorite actor in a motherly embrace. “So proud.”

Try finding that on Broadway.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com