by Cassie, Publicity Assistant
Thomas Hischak is Professor of Theatre at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of sixteen books on theater, film, and popular music as well as the author of twenty published plays. In The Oxford Companion To The American Musical, Hischak offers over two thousand entries on musicals, performers, composers, lyricists, producers, choreographers and much more. In this post, Hischak looks at the phenomenally successful Disney series High School Musical.
The third installment of the “High School Musical” phenomenon has hit the big screen so it’s time to again consider why this unlikely musical franchise is breaking box office records. I say “unlikely” because the three musicals do not exactly follow the show business guidelines. Both “Grease” and “Hairspray” were set in high schools of the past and fed on nostalgia for those who were there or those who wished they were. But the “High School Musicals” are contemporary with scores that are today instead of a pastiche of yesterday. One has to go back to the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” Hollywood musicals of the 1940s to find an apt precedent for this recent youth-centered phenomenon. Those MGM movies idealized youth and celebrated talent. Rooney’s character not only sang and danced but was usually the writer and director of the big show. In the first and third “High School Musical,” the big show is not just another amateur production of “Bye Bye Birdie” but an original piece presented on the scale of a Broadway blockbuster.
Both the old and new series idealized youth, showing them through rose-colored glasses that even the most scrupulous parent would approve of. The Hollywood production code made sure there was no sex or drugs in “Babes in Arms” and “Strike Up the Band”. The new version is just as squeaky clean, which could be attributed to Disney. Even the ethnic diversity in the school, something MGM didn’t ever consider, is handled with sunny optimism. The worse thing that happens at East High is two jocks steal some clothes from the locker room.
But what is most amazing about the “High School Musicals” is that young audiences do not laugh at this wholesome and unrealistic view of high school; they embrace it. It is the ultimate fantasy for a generation too embarrassed to admit they still like all the other Disney fantasies that they grew up with. Basketballer Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), the central romantic pair throughout the trilogy, are as naive as Mickey and Judy. We are almost through the third movie before they can actually kiss on the lips. In fact, the teens at East High seem naive about a lot of things. Hell, even Mickey knew what a corsage was.
Is this idealized look at youth and growing up the secret behind the series’ success? It must be part of it. But any musical must stand on its musical talent. The personable cast members sing their banal songs with sincerity and energy. It is remarkable that a whole slew of songwriters scoring three full-length musicals could not come up with one song that doesn’t wallow in clichés musically and lyrically. Of course, this type of bubble gum song has always been popular among young people. It seems we haven’t progressed much from the beach songs that teens craved in the 1960s. At least the score for “Babes on Broadway” and the other MGM youth musicals was top flight and everyone could enjoy them, adults and kids. But Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins aren’t writing for Disney and we are left with a set on songs that clumsily tread the limbo between rock and Broadway. I guess the polite euphemism is to call them “pop.”
Wherever you stand on the music part of the “High School Musicals” seems to make little difference when the production numbers themselves are mostly terrific. The lyrics may be trite but the staging is witty, turning mediocre songs into high-flying entertainment. Kenny Ortega, who directed all three films and choreographed most of the numbers, knows how to entertain in a way that the script and score rarely understand. Just as director-choreographer Busby Berkeley went berserk on occasion in the MGM movies, so too Ortega is not afraid to let the musical numbers fly off into self-parody and sublime exaggeration. One can argue that most of the production numbers are overproduced but, in this fantasy world of growing up in tempo to the pulsating music, one has to leave reality behind. There is little difference between the fantasies of the self-centered diva Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) and an actual number on stage in the spring musical; both are more interested in giddy dreams than everyday emotions.
The first “High School Musical” was a pleasant surprise, the second a dreary and unimaginative sequel, and the third a tighter and more satisfying work that knows what the audience wants (less plot, more musical numbers) and delivers. The creators took advice from Mickey and Judy and said “hell, let’s put on a show!”