SCENE 1: STUDIO CHIEF’S OFFICE INT.
Producer is pitching his idea.
Producer: OK. Picture this. It’s a musical within a musical, right? Are you seeing that? They sing … about wanting to sing.
Studio Chief: Go on.
Producer: All right. You’ve got these two cute kids, right? They’re in college, no … high school—yeah, yeah! And, uh … he’s the star of the basketball team and she’s this new brainy kid who just got transferred in. They both like to sing … and they like each other. And, then they try out for a musical. That’s the musical within the musical. Get it? Oh, and they’ll dance and stuff and have friends … usual high school junk. But, no kissing.
Studio Chief: No kissing?
Producer: Maybe they’ll hold hands, but no sex, drugs, swearing, none of that. It’s a whole new concept. Picture it … clean. It’s, it’s so fresh.
Studio Chief: (Pause) Brilliant! It’ll make millions!
Producer: Don’t forget the soundtrack CD.
Studio Chief: Billions!!
It’s a silly scene, virtually unimaginable this side of some corny 1940s, um, musical. But amazingly, something like it must have actually happened when producer Don Schain approached the Disney brass with the idea for High School Musical. Decades ago, it was a Mouse House musical, Mary Poppins, that invigorated my (and scores of others’) emerging love for the genre. So why not try it again with the latest tween set, the execs in charge must have decided. Now, don’t get me wrong, High School Musical is no Mary Poppins. In fact, its music can sometimes feel like rejected bits and pieces from an old Paula Abdul album. Along with that, the lip-syncing in the film is atrocious. And some of the lyrics are so simple they make “We Are the World” read like a Johann Strauss operetta.
However (and it’s a big however), at its heart, and in the sum of its parts, High School is indeed a classic style Disney musical. For one thing—as you already heard the producer brag���it’s clean. No drugged up kids cussin’ and carousin’ here (a lyrical reference to “booty” is about as sleazy as things get). Nope, in this one, they sing, dance and laugh. So much so that you quickly find yourself smiling along with them. Their bounce and pep draw you across an imaginary border into that world where, in the end, even the “bad guys” happily sing and dance alongside the heroes.
High School Musical tells the tale of Troy and Gabriella, who meet at a New Years Eve snowboarding retreat when they’re coaxed to sing a karaoke song together. They find each other again when the spring semester starts back up and Gabriella transfers to Troy’s school, East High.
Cue tryouts for the big spring musical!
When Troy and Gabriella audition they open an unexpected can of worms, though. Reigning drama queen Sharpay and her brother, Ryan, don’t want to share the spotlight. So the pair join forces with the basketball team (Troy is the captain and star) and the academics team (Gabriella is their primo intellectual) to split up Troy and Gabriella and ruin their musical chances.
The ploy works. But a nanosecond later, Troy and Gabriella’s friends fess up, realizing the error of their ways. Cut to the big finale.
The idea is fairly straightforward. Most teens in high school want to find their group and blend in. It’s safer that way. However, in this story, Troy (the “jock”) and Gabriella (the “brain”) break out of the mold. In an effort to enjoy their secret passions for music, and spend a little time together, they decide to do something different and … send their friends into a tizzy. Why are the b-ball star and the math genius wasting their time and messing up the natural order of things?
This central theme is revealed in the song “Stick to the Status Quo.” Because Troy and Gabriella decide to slash the stereotypes, they encourage other students to reveal the things they secretly like to do, too. The action takes place in the heart of the school, the cafeteria, and choreographs a wonderful tug and pull as students try to keep the “rebels”—the athlete who likes to bake, the smart girl who likes to dance, etc.—in line.
Other tunes promote friendship, hard work, encouraging words and playing well with others. This film wants teens and tweens to know, “You can rely on your friends to help you out when you need it.” The kids at Eash High struggle a bit, but always come around in the end.
The basketball team, led by Troy, sings a song called “Getcha’ Head in the Game.” The song shows us Troy wrestling with thoughts about the big game and wanting to be in the musical with Gabriella, but it also speaks of focusing on practice and hard work to reach your goals.
On a less tangible note, the musical presents East High as a good place to be. Schools can often be tagged as dungeons filled with violence and smuggled-in weapons, but this alma mater is sun-filled and looks like … a school.
Furthermore, High School Musical does a good job of depicting kids who have a healthy relationship with their parents. When we first meet Troy, he’s playing ball with his dad (the coach). The scene could be interpreted as a coach driving his son to perfection because of the upcoming championship game (and Troy’s mom almost implies as much), but it ultimately plays as a father and son enjoying something they both love. Troy’s mom then encourages him to find other ways to spend his vacation, rather than just playing basketball, and he accepts her advice and goes to the karaoke party. Later on there’s a scene where Troy realizes that he has hurt Gabriella’s feelings and goes to her house to apologize. When Gabriella’s mom comes to the door he is polite and even apologizes to her for being unkind to her daughter.
None. Although there is an obvious attraction sparked between the movie’s leads, there are never any unseemly actions or innuendo. The costuming and dancing are strictly high school musical, not Las Vegas sensual, unlike so many “more mature” onscreen musicals these days.
High School Musical is one of the cleanest, most fun, upright movies I’ve seen in a while, but a few minor elements could bear mentioning—if for no other reason than to prompt a conversation about them. In order to pull Troy and Gabriella apart, the basketball team talks to Troy about the great East High athletes of the past (including Troy’s dad) and make him feel guilty about not practicing hard enough and letting the team down. After connecting a live video feed to Gabriella’s classroom, they trick Troy into saying he doesn’t care about Gabriella or the musical.
Sharpay and Ryan are the main sources of conflict at East High. They expect high praise for everything they do and verbally belittle others. And they sing a shallow, self absorbed appeal to do “anything it takes to climb to the top.” Later, Sharpay lies to the drama teacher.
But the other kids can get into mischief, too. In order to trick the teachers and get Troy and Gabriella to the audition, the students boil chemicals over in class and cause a power outage in the gym.
High School Musical may have a few creative shortcomings, but it always feels bright and inviting. A feeling which is only enhanced by the cast’s dancing exuberance. Director Kenny Ortega, the Emmy Award-winning choreographer for the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, has choreographed just the right amount of joyful bounce into each song—never descending into a jazz-style lewdness or a hip-hop slump and strut.
My fourteen-year-old daughter watched the movie with me, and although she began it with a word of skepticism, she finished it with, “That was great.” I smiled at that, happy my musical appreciation gene had been passed along. Then, I got to thinking about her reaction.
Early on, Troy’s friend is incredulous that Troy would even consider being a part of the upcoming theater production. He says, “The music in those shows isn’t hip-hop, or rock, or anything essential to culture!” Although the writer intended this blurb as a comic jab at his own creation, it suddenly hit me that it was a rather ironic statement.
Most major players in Hollywood and the music industry insist that the only thing that will sell with the mass youth market today is the sweaty, tattooed, bling-bling bilge that they keep pumping out. High School Musical has them surprised and scratching their heads—its first six broadcasts on the Disney Channel drew in over 26 million viewers, its soundtrack parked itself at the top of Billboard‘s album chart with over a million sold, and its online single has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
But Disney’s success makes sense, if you realize that there are a lot of young people out there who have gone unrecognized and underserved. They are average kids, of all colors and backgrounds, who identify more closely with Troy and Gabriella and their desire to sing then they do with how hard it is for that proverbial pimp out on the street.
For once I’m actually hoping for a few copycats and a sequel or two.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.