It's easy for adults without children in the tween demographic (8- to 14-year-olds) to dismiss Disney's High School Musical phenomenon as yet another passing fad. And truth be told, it probably is. But what the retro-musical series has managed to accomplish during its relatively short time in the spotlight is impressive.
Filmed on a modest budget in 2006, the original made-for-TV musical about a high-school jock and the girl who convinces him to participate in the drama department became Disney's highest-rated show (a record that was eventually broken by High School Musical 2). The soundtrack also became the year's best-selling album, selling more than 4 million copies.
Since then, High School Musical has become a billion-dollar juggernaut complete with merchandising, reality spin-offs, touring ice shows, and fans as far flung as Egypt, France, and the Philippines. Now that the third installment, set to premiere on the big screen rather than the Disney Channel, is breaking early sales records, it looks as if the beat will go on at least a little while longer.
However, while High School Musical's successes are certainly noteworthy, what is more interesting is how the franchise has managed to rack up such big numbers by going against the cultural grain. Where the status-obsessed high-schoolers of John Hughes' movies in the '80s and the sexually experimenting kids of 90210 in the '90s seemed to perfectly embody the zeitgeist of their age, the spirit of High School Musical stands against it.
The clothes and choreography may be new millennial, but the sweet, sincere cast looks more like they belong on a beach beside Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon than sharing space in teen fan magazines with the stars of Gossip Girl and The Hills. And that, according to the creative team behind the films, is precisely what is drawing kids (and their parents) to the movies in droves.
"We've taken our share of knocks from people saying, 'But it's not really like high school. Nobody uses drugs, nobody's got an STD,'" says screenwriter Peter Barsocchini, "and our position is that's already available in the marketplace. That's not the movie we set out to make." Why not? Two reasons, say Barsocchini and his team. One, they saw a hole in the market. "We hearkened back to the great musicals of the '50s and '60s, because no one had explored the genre in a long time," says producer Barry Rosenbush. "Films like Chicago and Moulin Rouge were great successes, but no one was revisiting musicals that were appropriate for all ages."
Second, based on their experiences with their own children, they simply didn't believe that kids were as interested in subversive material as many in the entertainment industry tend to believe. Given a choice, they say, children often prefer products that don't push the boundaries.
Describing his inspiration for the scripts, Barsocchini says he "drew on a large well of my daughter and her friends, and what I saw was that they have tremendous access to other fast parts of the world. Gossip Girl has been heavily marketed to young girls, but it's not doing as well. And I think in part it's because kids have to grow up so fast these days. For example, when she was in second grade I sat in my daughter's class the day they came and gave a lecture on drugs. But I think kids want to enter something where they get to be completely goofy-there's this huge desire not to absorb all the adult stuff and be forced into being cool. The dirty little secret of contemporary entertainment is that a lot of that is being foisted on kids. They feel pressure when they see entertainment that pushes them ahead of where they are. High School Musical is anti-pressure for kids. And their reaction is to embrace the movies because it doesn't pressure them to go beyond where they're comfortable."
Yet, while the attitude of the films is more Doris Day than Paris Hilton, High School Musical's cutting-edge choreography and modern compositions probably also play a large role in drawing in young crowds. Director Kenny Ortega, most famous for choreographing the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, earned his dancing stripes under the tutelage of the great Gene Kelly. His training shows. Like many classic musicals from bygone eras (Oklahoma and South Pacific particularly come to mind), the acting and dialogue between numbers in High School Musical tend toward the corny if not occasionally campy. But the footwork displayed by Ortega's cast rivals-and at times surpasses -that of other recent entries in the genre.
While Ortega, Barsocchini, and Rosenbush all insist they never embarked on High School Musical with a message in mind, perhaps the rest of Hollywood should take a message away from the films anyway. Let kids be kids, throw in some superior dancing and infectious singing, and you too may have a billion-dollar phenomenon on your hands.