By: Cassidy Johnson
Fourteen years later, and my immediate reaction is to scream back at the top of my lungs “WILDCATS!!” When Disney Channel the original movie High School Musical (2006) they nor I knew what the prevalence this cultural monolith would have to this day.
When I began this class, I was excited to develop into the world of musicals. A family trip to New York City in 2006 granted me the opportunity to see Wicked and Tarzan on Broadway. Save this opportunity, my experience with musical theatre before this course was scant. Preparing to write my final essay, and seeing that the phenomenal Kenny Ortega creation was an option, I realized that my previous assumption was not entirely true. High School Musical actually had the most significant effect on me as a child–more than the two Broadway shows–and served as my introduction o musical theatre as it did for a generation of children. Through this Disney movie did I begin to understand what performing really was, why people might want to do it, and what goes into a production. High School Musical is accessible, largely unproblematic, and promotes essential messages for youth, all while sporting a fairly simple plot, and for these reasons, it has maintained cultural relevance.
High School Musical is accessible. Back then, a TV and cable certainly cost less than a Broadway ticket (though maybe not a local production). Anyway, watching a movie or musical on a channel does not feel like any additional cost. And now, with a Disney+ subscription, who needs cable? My point is, that by putting the movie on Disney Channel–not even sending it to theatres–Disney ensured that the widest audience possible was able to view it. It’s likely that the cultural heavyweight that is HSM would not be what it is today if so many children and teens were not able to watch it in their homes.
Things that are different, things that are unique stand out. We could all list off musicals Disney has made until we are blue in the face. But High School Musical has something special that Tangled, Mulan, Aladdin, and all the others lack: it’s ordinary. The movie essentially about school cliques and wanting to sing. Boy meets girl, drama ensues. Very simple. There are no spells, quests, or monsters (even if you don’t like Sharpay). While the musical features a rather mundane storyline, that is not something we often see from Disney: but sticking with the ordinary, Disney has created a standout production. People can be easily be affected by others or experiences that they can relate to. As much as my generation may cherish characters like Mulan, Moana, or even Tiana, it can be difficult to draw a connection between your life and a fantastical situation. We don’t have the same problem with HSM: it takes place in a school, the characters are regular people, and the greatest conflict is to sing or not to sing? Do I see myself in the boy who just wants to play ball? The girl who wants to be a star? The shy wiz? Or can I relate to the kid who’s scared to break barriers? These realistic situations are the ones that have a real lasting effect on young viewers like myself. The production HSM is accessible is it’s format, storylines, characters, and settings.
High School Musical should be applauded for its diverse casting. We have two Black actors featured among the main six. And Vanessa Hudgens, the female lead, is of mixed descent. It has been said a hundred times (and it’s worth repeating a hundred more) but when seeing yourself reflected in (positive) roles and experiences can profoundly affect young people. Although in the first film Chad and Taylor do not participate in the school musical the audience still gets a clear sense of the talent they possess. Their chances to shine musically only increased throughout the second and third films. The socio-economic diversity within the student body is also powerful. Each kid has an equal chance at East High, whether you are rich, middle-class, or the kid who moves around each year.
Being a book musical the musical numbers featured in the film largely move the plot forward or highlight a theme. Earlier, I called High School Musical an introduction to musical theatre. This is not just because it is fiction, or that I was five-years-old the first time I saw it, but because a significant of the songs are not actually performed in a musical theatre setting. Yes, Sharpay and Ryan Evan’s “Bop to the Top” and “What I’ve Been Looking For” are stage numbers. As are the Troy and Gabriella audition and finale numbers. However, five songs in the films take place off the stage. The two ensemble performances represent the main conflict and resolution of the musical. “Stick To The Status Quo” is about keeping the existing social order of East High in place. The student body is actively pushing against its members that want to branch out and express identities outside their clique. Troy, the jock, and Gabriella, the wiz, “mess with the flow” by getting callbacks for the musical. “We’re All In This Together” shows the social growth the student body underwent by accepting the notion that people can multiple interests. The message goes from: “It is better by far to keep things as they are, Don’t mess with the flow” to “We’re not the same we’re different in a good way” supporting the differing ambitions of others. These truly thematic performances do not need the presence of a stage to get the message across. The musical and the stage are not the true focus and so the film does not rely on the stage to hold its songs. High School Musical strategically draws a line between the larger musical and Ms. Darbus’ production. In fact, is a musical featuring a musical, not the perfect introduction to musical theatre.
Though certain franchises and fandoms may be popular (think: Star Wars, Star Trek, My Little Pony, etc.) there is still a level of stigma that comes with discussing them (or openly loving them) outside the internet. Anyone who has ever been called a nerd for liking something–including theatre nerds–knows exactly what I am talking about. Things that are animated and/or not fully rooted in reality are otherized. High School Musical does not have to deal with that extra categorization. Every character is human, the conflict is fully resolved, and it’s rated PG with a happy ending. Just average kids with above-average talent. Perfectly acceptable.
High School Musical inserts critical messages regarding acceptance and plurality throughout the book and the songs. And the audience sees the characters struggle with intrapersonal discoveries and desires across three musicals. It’s okay to want to be a star and bop to the top. It’s okay if all you want to do is play ball, or if want to sing too. Creme brulee makers are welcome as well. There is a place for the shy kid; resist the status quo; the rich kid doesn’t always win; people can be more than one thing. There is nothing to gain by stifling your talent or your interests.
There is an aspect of High School Musical that speaks to everyone. Musical theatre? Diverse representation? Breaking free of social constraints or norms? Zac Efron? If the movie did not resonate with audiences there would not be two sequel films. Nor would we have the wonder that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. HSM remains culturally relevant because what it represents remains culturally significant. Also, it just a really good movie.