Since I’ve watched Disney’s High School Musical numerous times thanks to my daughter’s obsession with this TV movie, I have been thinking about its impact on her and the other children (ages 4-14) who have made it so popular. There is something very addictive about it because she cannot get enough of the songs, the stars, and the dancing. So what magic formula makes this movie so appealing?
Directed by Kenny Ortega, whose credits as a choreographer include Dirty Dancing, Newsies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Olympics, the movie tells the very timeless tale of Boy Meets Girl. The clever thing about it is the almost seamless way the music is integrated into the action, along with the truly amazing dance numbers, which creates a vibrancy and earnestness that appeals to the senses and the heart.
In many ways High School Musical combines thematic links to Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, but there is no tragedy to be found here. Troy Bolton (played by Zac Efron doing his best David Cassidy impression) and Gabriella Montez (a lovely Vanessa Anne Hudgens who looks like a young Natalie Wood) meet across a crowded room like Juliet and her Romeo while on a family vacation. They are pushed into a karaoke situation where they almost immediately drop their initial shyness and sing their hearts out while exchanging expressions of attraction. This leads to a romantic New Year’s Eve at midnight countdown, but our (star-crossed?) lovers do not kiss; instead, they stare up into the sky and watch fireworks (which mirrors what’s happening inside their hearts).
Back in the real world of Albequerque, New Mexico (the movie was actually filmed in Utah), Troy returns to school the conquering hero, beloved by all as the leader of the basketball team and all around good guy. Greeted by Chad (Corbin Bleu), his ersatz Mercutio, Troy is swept back into school by cheerleaders and teammates who are joyous with the notion that their team will win the big game.
Waiting in the wings for Troy are the brother-sister villains Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel), who are no real threat but do provide some conflict in the story. They have starred together in school plays since Kindergarten and control the school’s Drama Club, and thus the attentions of teacher/director Mrs. Darbus (played by Alyson Reed with an appropriate over-the-top flair). Sharpay obviously has an attraction to Troy, but his head has already been turned by Gabriela, who just so happens to have registered in East High School that very day.
If you’re expecting dance numbers with opposing gangs like the Sharks and Jets, forget about it; this is a Disney version of high school. Ryan is no Tybalt or Bernado, and there isn’t a chance in the Magic Kingdom that Gabriela will end up like Juliet, nor will she ever have an opportunity to speak Maria’s (Natalie Wood) immortal line “How do you work this gun, Chino?” No, this is homogenized and pasteurized for our viewing pleasure, and that’s exactly what the kids like about it. The threats are minimal at best but are there to promote some sort of dynamic that will make their little hearts flutter, because they know that Troy and Gabriela belong together and will be happy despite the obstacles, however miniscule, that are in their way.
Gabriela and Troy feel something for each other and know the thing that unites them is their passion for singing, something that neither one really knew about before that karaoke night. Despite the pressures of his being the big basketball star and she being a math genius, they try out for the school musical and this sets in motion a series of events that produce some kind of turmoil in the school and the characters’ lives.
Troy’s relationship with his father Jack Bolton (Bart Johnson), who happens to be coach of the Wildcats basketball team, provides additional conflict because he wants Troy to focus on the game. Efron does his best to squint his eyes and show there is internal conflict to deal with besides the external conflict of friends and team. Hudgens has grace and beauty and Gabriela’s one solo, “When There Was Me and You,” shows her walking around a conveniently empty high school, pining for her lost love after their friends set them up to think they have betrayed one another.
At this point the kids (judging from my daughter’s anxious reactions) must be really worried because it seems the lovebirds will never get back together again; however, all fears are quickly allayed when Troy goes to Gabriela’s house to try to see her. There is even the obligatory balcony scene. No, Troy does not say “what light through yonder window breaks”, but he does come prepared with a song in his heart and wins back his love.
The musical numbers are smoothly done, with a slick feel of the big musicals of the past combined with a revitalized kind of energy. Ortega takes what he learned in those big scenes in Dirty Dancing and transfers them to the small screen, filling the dancers with a sense of purpose that is found in the fluid movements and athletic choreography.
The school cafeteria number, “Stick to the Status Quo,” depicts all the kids, now released from bondage of pretending to be something else by Troy’s bold decision to tryout for the play, revealing their secret desires. It’s a huge production with a number of solo vocals, but the highlight is when Gabriela slips and dumps her lunch on Sharpay’s shirt. If one is looking for sub-textual references, this shows Gabriela doing as much to change the antiseptic “status quo” in the school as Troy.
One of the funniest sequences involves auditions for the musical, the play within the play that we never see. This brings out some of the odder (and less talented) members of the student body who sing, dance, and mime their way into oblivion as Darbus does her best Simon Cowell impersonation. When Ryan and Sharpay sing their over-rehearsed version of the song “What I’ve Been Looking For,” we cringe for them but are meant to understand that Darbus thinks this is great stuff (that is, until she hears Troy and Gabriela sing an understated and rather beautiful version of the same song).
The last sequence involves a basketball game, a final audition for the musical, and an academic competition all happening at once (so arranged by the malevolent Sharpay). Troy and Gabriela (with the help of their friends who are now quickly converted and supporting their musical efforts) find a way around this, and their duet “Breaking Free” aces their roles in the play and yet does not bring down the curtain.
The finale is the finest musical moment in the film where the cast comes together, dances all over the auditorium (Troy’s team wins the trophy by the way), and sings their little hearts out. The quality and scope of the production indicates the high caliber of Ortega’s talents, and it also shows Disney’s willingness to make this a first class film that stands the test of repeated viewings.
My daughter always gets up at the end and dances all over the room. This made me recall when I went to see Dirty Dancing the first time. It has a similar top-notch finale, and I remember people literally dancing their way out of the theatre when it was over. Lucky for us, Mr. Ortega has stayed true to that kind of invigorating formula, for it works here and no doubt will continue to do so since there are two sequels planned in the near future.
It goes without saying my daughter can’t wait until the second movie debuts, but until then she can continue to enjoy the original while I keep wondering what Ortega can do to make a sequel as good as or better than this one.