Fifteen years ago, I thought that musicals were a dying art-form. Hardly anyone my age or younger cared about musical theater. Younger generations believed that a Disney cartoon character might burst into song, but a human on stage? Spontaneously singing and dancing? That’s way too corny!
But High School Musical has revamped the genre. Since its Disney Channel debut in 2006, the cable movie has sold millions of CDs and DVDs. The sequel, boringly titled High School Musical 2, became an enormous hit as well. The third installment, High School Musical 3 makes its big screen debut in October 2008.
But it has gone beyond movies and television. High School Musical Live has drawn children and their parents to Broadway and West End theaters. And now, kids can do more than watch the show—they can be part of it. A kid-friendly stage version is available through Musical Theater International. Regional theaters, schools, and drama camps have embraced this easy-to-produce stage version of High School Musical, making it one of the most frequently performed school musicals of the decade.
There’s no doubt that the franchise is a monumental cash cow. But does it promote “good theater”? Or is High School Musical so silly that it degrades the spirit of the American Stage? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of this incredibly popular show.
Yes, the dialogue of High School Musical is cheesy. Cheesier than the nachos Gabriella spills on Sharpay. I would imagine it difficult for even the most talented young thespians to craft a masterful performance out of these tongue-in-cheek Disney characters. However, the cheesiness might be fun for less experienced drama students.
The plot is as sickly sweet as creamed corn. Athletic Troy and Brainiac Gabriella want to try out for their school’s new musical, but their peer groups pressure them to maintain the status quo. Basically, the wafer-thin conflict makes Grease like a Shakespearean tragedy by comparison.
I admit, there are melodies much worse than the one’s found in High School Musical. To its credit, the songs are energetic and catchy (despite the fact they were crafted by over a dozen composers). The lyrics are sub-par; they offer generic, lovey-dovey feelings without a realistic glimpse into a teenager’s soul. Essentailly, the songs are standard bubble-gum pop – they aren’t offensive or clever, but they are rather catchy.
The musical numbers work best when the show actually utilizes the high school setting, such as “Get Your Head in the Game.” The ballads, while pretty, make you feel like you’re watching slightly above average karaoke performers.
So, what’s good about High School Musical?
The world of High School Musical might be far too cheerful to be realistic. Yet, it’s a pleasant fantasy, isn’t it? Instead of bullying, gang violence, or locker room drug deals, the conflicts at East High are simply resolved through singing and dancing.
The central message of High School Musical is that young people can achieve their dreams. They should feel free to explore new avenues, and become who they aspire to be.
Also, High School Musical imbues a sense of camaraderie. Check out these feel-good lyrics in the show’s finale:
…All our dreams have no limitations That's what its all about Everyone is special in their own way We make each other strong (each other strong) Were not the same Were different in a good way Together's where we belong
Aww… Now don’t you wish all high school students felt that way?
From what I’ve seen in youth theater productions, High School Musical on Stage makes it easy and fun for kids to dance in front of audiences. There must be something infectious about director/choreographer Kenny Ortega’s moves. They make kids want to emulate the energetic style. Perhaps it’s because many of the moves are modeled after commonplace high school activities: sports, cheerleading, or goofing around with your friends.
A warning to youth theater directors: Take some of the air out of the basketballs before the “Get Your Head in the Game” number. Otherwise, the balls will make way too much noise and bounce off stage. (Although that might add to the fun!)
Encouraging the Dramatic Arts:
While sports and academics have long since been lauded, it’s nice to see a high school drama club being celebrated (even if the drama teacher is portrayed as a crazy old loon!).
I’m guessing most 17 year olds find High School Musical an insult to their existence. However, many pre-teens are in love in love with all things HSM, including its incredibly optimistic view on teen-age life. They are the ones who have been flocking to see the live productions. And hopefully, when they eventually go to high school, they will enroll in drama education.
With a little luck, drama courses will fill up in record numbers, and the next generation of theater lovers will be “soaring… flying… There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t—” Oh no! I’ve got those darn High School Musical songs stuck in my head again!