Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 26, 2009

High School Musical Disease: Catch It!

I saw the stage version of Disney’s High School Musical at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theater with my son and some friends this week.

I tried to avoid this whole HSM thing as long as possible, but I knew deep down that I would get sucked in eventually. And despite my general distaste for the dumbed-down pablum that Big Brother Disney usually serves up (at a premium price), I must confess that this particular story and these songs really hooked me. The $10 group-rate matinee price wasn’t bad, either. And the Q&A after the show with all the performers did some significant theater education work very well, in just a few minutes time.

Suddenly, especially for boys, it’s kind of cool to enjoy singing and dancing. That’s no small feat in a culture still stuck in machismo mode more than it should be. Zac (and yesterday’s onstage Troy, Max) are my new heroes!

Then, as if to prove my point, today six-year-old Graham spontaneously taught me a song with motions that he learned way back in September at school. The song, called “Today is Sunday”, is essentially a list of kid foods, while making dancelike hand and head motions to signify each day of the week (chicken, peanut butter, “snap” beans, soup, ice cream, hot dog, and my favorite: Pizza Saturday!) He’s all excited now, standing behind my chair, because I told him his song made it into the blog. You’re a star, Graham!

But back to HSM: As with all good musicals, I knew not to expect anything realistic or deep. So by instead giving myself over to the fantasy, forgiving the script’s shortcuts and flaws, I was magically transported, even made to feel young again. For this was about 75 minutes of fast-paced, efficient storytelling, good clean humor, creatively choreographed dance numbers, and a handful of catchy, thoughtful songs  that I wouldn’t mind my kid singing (though I’ve always been a sucker for the ballads anyway).

If you have adult children, really young children, or none at all, you may not know that for the past few years, the High School Musical phenomenon has been filling the radio and tv airwaves, movie theaters, and bedroom walls of millions of grade school kids and ‘tweens. What started out as a simple made-for-TV movie on Disney Channel has become one of the biggest cash cows in the entertainment industry, spawning sequels, hot-selling CDs, and all the jillions of licensed HSM backpacks and other products they can get China to churn out. I would imagine it has also catapulted several young stars into the serious grown-up stratosphere of multi-million dollar contracts, though I actually think the concept, writing and composers deserve more of the credit for all this success. As does Shakespeare, whose Romeo and Juliet has once again provided the backdrop for a story about being who you are, accepting differences, and breaking free from social expectations.

To me, it only makes sense that this thing blew up. The “triple threats” (actor/singer/dancer) have always been one of the main engine parts that drive the Hollywood economy. So in a way, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens (the male and female leads of the three movies) are just the latest incarnation of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Frankie and Annette, or Travolta and Newton-John. And as for that mediocre Grease sequel with Michelle Pfeiffer and Adrian Zmed, let’s just say I’m not holding out much hope for the “next class” of HSM characters (last year’s HSM 3 was senior year –so HSM 4, already announced, will feature a whole new ensemble of characters, with some very big shoes to fill).

Part of the strength of the HSM series was in the casting. Zanessa, Troyella… call them what you will, they’re just as much a power couple as Brangelina — if you’re eleven years old. And based on an interview with Zac Efron that I read in Rolling Stone, I am a lot less bothered by these kids than I am by the smirking, elitist Brad and Angelina. [ Even worse: Vanessa’s DisneyTeen counterpart, Miley Cyrus. She’s a tool of the devil, his virgin bride in waiting! Run for your lives! ]

Zac may be nothing more than the Bobby Sherman, Donny Osmond, Shaun Cassidy, or Aaron Carter style teen idol for the present generation of ‘tweens, soon to be cast aside (as opposed to Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Paul McCartney, Travolta or Justin Timberlake, who all successfully made the transition from teen heartthrob to long-term careers as entertainers). But in the interview mentioned above, Efron seems pretty grounded and realistic about that possibility of audience fickleness. He seems to have his head on straight.

I’m less informed about Vanessa Hudgens, but the basic info here at Wiki tells me that she’s part Filipino. So casting-wise, that brings this project into the multi-culti upper echelons with flying colors. And Ashley Tisdale, the excellent drama queen/antagonist of the movie series, was already an established child star, on the strength of her recurring tv role on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

I’m tempted to go gossip-hunting now to see if these Efron and Hudgens are still romantically linked in real life. (I also wonder if their “real life” relationship was studio-generated to sell more product, or authentic …but maybe that’s just the cynic in me talking.) I’ll resist the temptation to gossip, though. Go find your own version of Tiger Beat (remember that?) to fill you in on the juicy details.

The participatory opportunities for kids is probably the biggest difference in why this series has made a bigger impact than most prior live musicals or movies for kids. Gone are the days when a fan club bought a magazine or used paper and pen to write to their fellow fans or favorite stars. Instead, it’s now about studio-created chatrooms, do-it-yourself fan tributes on YouTube, or the video-game version of a kid’s favorite movie.

For instance, YouTube is full of videos like this one, 

where fans of the movies have added HSM images to a pop song by another artist (one for whom they don’t have to worry as much about copyright infringement, and getting stuff pulled down off the web… Disney is famous for sicking their lawyers on anyone who even whispers their name without paying them for permission). I picked the Fray song above just because I myself like the Fray, and the home-made music video sort of works. Plus there’s something romantic and cool about any old sixth-grader with a Mac being able to take something they’re excited about and use technology to express themselves, for all the world to see. I wish I would have had this stuff when I was twelve.

Nevertheless, HSM most likely has something for everyone, whether you’re six or sixty. And I did actually see a few wrinkled but enthused retiree patrons at the 10am Wednesday show, who had NOT brought their grandkids. They were probably season subscribers of the Marriott theater, out for a little taste of what high school is like nowadays.

I couldn’t help wondering what these oldsters thought about the show, or about the changes in society since they were 16 themselves. On the other hand –cellphones or not, karaoke or not — I suspect that high school hasn’t been all that different in America since before WWII. It’s always going to be about being 16, and cliquishness, and stumbling toward a secure adult identity, and testing out your interests and talents, and hopefully finding love along the way.

In fact, if you look at Romeo and Juliet, it’s probably always been that way. At least with High School Musical, our heroes don’t die in the end!


  1. I can’t tell you how many kids I know who sing HSM songs all the time…
    Nice review, maybe I have to check it out. I’ve resisted for a while.
    Miley Cyrus… now that’s a shame.

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