The High School Musical trilogy shaped my childhood; the first installment came out when I was just six years old and the soundtrack has been on repeat ever since. Like any piece of entertainment with a large fan base and a catchy chorus (or several), High School Musical receives considerable hate. And like any loyal fan– unbothered by petty criticisms or plainly bad takes– I defend its merits whenever they are called into question. For those who wonder what grants this musical drama its undeniable artistic credibility, I can suggest a myriad of factors ranging from Kenny Ortega’s brilliant choreography to Lucas Gabreel’s representation of fluid gender roles. A quick glance at just how many students in our class elected to write about High School Musical of all musicals demonstrates just how impactful this piece was on our generation. Despite my unwavering loyalty, I have challenged myself to review the High School Musical trilogy with a critical eye on the cultural messages writer Peter Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega inadvertently imply through questionable casting choices and noteworthy plot themes. Many of these implications affect how young audiences may view themselves in matters related to race, class, and sexuality.
All things considered, High School Musical sports a relatively racially diverse cast. Two of the main characters are Black, and a good number of Black actors join the cast as supporting characters. Moreover, the heroine of the trilogy is Latina… right? Truth be told, the introduction of protagonist Gabriella Montez is where viewers concerned with matters regarding race and ethnicity should begin squinting their eyes. Gabriella is clearly written as a Hispanic character. If her name is not a dead giveaway, the regional setting of the films (Albuquerque, New Mexico) and physical appearance of the girl, who is played by actress Vanessa Hudgens, should clue viewers in. However, Disney channel’s young audience might be a little less sure about Gabriella’s ethnicity, and with good reason. Even with her dark hair, dark eyes, and slight tan– which becomes a bit unnatural looking in High School Musical 2– Vanessa Hudgens is white passing. This alone should not be too concerning; many Latinx people, indeed, are white.
However, actress Vanessa Hudgens is seemingly everything but Latina. Hudgens claims Native American, Filippino, Chinese, and white as her racial and ethnic identities. As such, her playing a Hispanic character is a bit… odd. In the context of musical theater history, Hudgens passing as Latina in order to play Miss Montez is not nearly as bad as using yellowface or blackface. Although one could argue that given those intense tans in High School Musical 2, it might be more similar than fans like myself are willing to admit. I did consider that Gabriella Montez could be in the very small percentage of non-Hispanic people who have Montez as a last name. However, that fantasy was easily destroyed upon rewatching High School Musical 3, in which Gabriella’s mother speaks to her in Spanish, saying, “Te quiero con todo mi alma.” After this scene, there is no question that Gabriella is a Latina character.
Aside from Miss Montez, the High School Musical franchise struggles to challenge the status quo when it comes to racial character dynamics. The Black best friend television trope is, unfortunately, how many Black TV and film stars can expect to get their big break in the entertainment industry. Not only does High School Musical play into this trope, but it does so twice. Chad Danforth and Taylor McKessie are the best friends of Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, respectively. The Black “sidekick” allows these movies to fill a diversity quota of sorts without writing complex storylines for those characters. Writer Barsocchini does seem to attempt to ameliorate this trope with a countertrope for character Taylor McKessie, who is played by actress Monique Coleman. Taylor, a Black female, is one of the smartest students at East High. The “Black nerd” countertrope attempts to challenge stereotypes of Black kids taking school less seriously, and the High School Musical franchise executes it quite well through Taylor’s character. However, Taylor was not written as a Black character, or as a character with any designated race. Monique Coleman has stated that she and two Asian American women were up for the part before she was eventually chosen. Given these three options, casting directors Jason La Padura, Jeff Johnson, and Natalie Hart would have played into a trope or stereotype regardless of which actress they chose for Taylor. Instead of the Black best friend, it would have been the nerdy Asian.
From the onset, characters Ryan and Sharpay Evans– played by Lucas Gabreel and Ashley Tisdale, respectively– are made out to be spoiled, bougie, rich kids who are more than accustomed to getting everything they want. Interestingly, these characters were originally written to be the African American duo– but the directors could not find a Black male they liked for Ryan. The racial dynamics would have been completely different– and not in a good way, in my opinion– had this original casting vision manifested. Had the directors made the primary Black representation in High School Musical the selfish, sassy, antagonists that characterize Ryan and Sharpay, the movie likely would have been less successful. Black influence and support in popular culture is extremely valuable and effective, and this was especially true at the turn of the 21st century. Speaking from my own experience, Black parents would have been much less likely to support a mainstream franchise that portrayed Black youth with the attitude problems of Ryan and Sharpay. For a franchise with a young target audience, parent support is exceedingly important.
Even if High School Musical still became a worldwide phenomenon with a Black Ryan and Sharpay, there likely would have been disturbing social consequences for Black youth– especially those interested in musical theater. The anti-stereotype goes a bit too far to have been productive for cultural discourse. Some countertropes can be helpful and should be encouraged, as is the case for Taylor McKessie. I, for one, am all for showing more smart Black characters to young audiences. But a countertrope that would have drastically centered the issues of race and class– like a Black Ryan and Sharpay undoubtedly would have– goes from one undesirable extreme to one unlikable one. When minority representation is limited, as it often is, each character has an exceedingly profound impact on social and cultural perceptions. I can already imagine young Black kids shying away from interests in theater for fear of being too similar to the movies’ antagonists.
Regarding class dynamics, socioeconomic status is an underlying issue that clearly affects the social dynamics in High School Musical, just as it does in any real high school. Although issues related to money and class are not as prevalent in the first film, they become quite clear when characters start worrying about saving up for cars and paying for college in films 2 and 3. While Ryan and Sharpay are the clear wealth hoarders of the group, the rest of the characters make themselves out to be middle class. One of the central plotlines in the second film is Troy’s obsession with how he is– or isn’t– going to pay for college. He goes as far as to sacrifice his friendly and romantic relationships for a better chance to secure his economic future.
Now, if set designer Mark Hofeling had not made Troy’s home a near-million dollar house (I got estimates on Zillow), his complaints may have been more believable. He wears the same variation of colored baseball tees and dark blue jeans so that his class is pretty disguisable, but the several scenes where he plays on his perfectly painted backyard basketball court or hosts a hundred people for an after party reveal his true economic condition. Of course, Troy is not the only rich kid on the block– Gabriella’s Albuquerque home, which is shared only between herself and her mother– also suggests that she might be closer to upper than middle class. Gabriella also easily quits her summer job in High School Musical 2 when she decides the social drama isn’t worth it. At the very least, Barsocchini character’s might instill a sense of social insecurity into young viewers who are actually struggling with money issues at home and then compare themselves to the characters on screen.
Lastly, things get a little tricky when Ryan’s sexuality is considered– which it should be. From his flamboyant outfits to his fondness for yoga and his insistence that “everyone loves a good jazz square”, Ryan is clearly coded as a gay character to anyone with even a mild level of social consciousness. At the very least, he could pass as metrosexual; and this has to become the assumption when the directors, for some reason, hint at a romantic relationship between him and the supporting female character, Kelsi Nielsen, in the third movie. Although Kenny Ortega never explicitly says that Ryan is gay, he does admit that the character is inspired by him, who is admittedly a gay, theater nerd. So then the question becomes, why couldn’t the directors have left it at that? Was it really necessary to show Ryan and Kelsi frolicking in the grass and blushing about going to prom together? Ryan’s forced heterosexuality at the end of the series leaves some viewers disappointed, but it can be especially disheartening for viewers who saw themselves in him, up until that point.
I am who I am today because of the High School Musical trilogy. It was my first introduction to musical theater, first loves, and the triumphs and downfalls of high school. What most attracted me to High School Musical, though, was how it made each of the characters someone I wanted to relate to. High School Musical reveals how pop culture entertainment can stick to the status quo, or it can challenge it. This franchise does a little bit of both– and that precise combination is how it established itself as the cultural phenomenon that it is today.