When I was younger, I was a complete High School Musical (written by Peter Barsocchini, composed by David Lawrence) fanatic. I’m talking about a major obsession. I would convince my sister she was Sharpay and I was Gabriella, and I’m pretty sure we would even act out the whole musical (using stuffed animals for the rest of the characters). For at least a year I believe I watched High School Musical (1, 2, and 3) at least once a day. My mom even one day had enough of it that she took the DVD from me and my younger sister, and hid it from us (you’ve probably never seen so many tears before). My obsession wasn’t only with the music, the dancing, or the cute characters, but also with the love story and idealization of what high school and growing up would be like for me. Talk about cultural identity, right? Well, turns out this wasn’t quite as unique of an experience as I had thought it was at the time. Every single one of my classmates in elementary school went through a similar obsession (maybe not as deep, but knew the music at the very least). When the time came that my high school decided to put on High School Musical (my freshman year), you bet it was record breaking for the number of auditions, first time performers, and selling out so quickly we had to add foldable chairs in the auditorium. So, what is it about High School Musical that makes it so enticing to my generation? Well, after rewatching it with a more critical eye, and actively searching for the “why”, I believe I have some ideas…
Kenny Ortega is the brilliant director and choreographer of High School Musical. Ortega really knew what he was doing in terms of both and I know that because of how each musical number is choreographed to convey a particular message. There aren’t a whole lot of musical numbers in HSM, but that means that they each had to be powerful enough to convey the message Ortega wanted, and to also be catchy enough for the audience (which they definitely were). Aside from choreography, can we talk about the costumes for a moment? I mean watching this back puts us right back in the deep end of 2000s style. Costume designer, Tom McKinley, knew how to style each actor and actress in HSM to help consumers identify with an individual character that not only acts, but also looked like them at the time. So not only do we have amazing choreography, an enticing plot, and catchy music, but costumes that connected everyday people to these characters.
To begin, let’s look at the classic opener: “The Start of Something New”. This song is sung by the two love interests and leads of the movie, Gabriella (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy (played by Zac Efron). Gabriella is your typical shy bookworm and Troy is the classic “coach’s son” who is the star basketball player. The thing they both have in common (other than good looks)? They have a secret passion for singing!
“The Start of Something New” really is true to its title, because it sets the plot for the whole musical that taking a chance with something new will reap positive outcomes. Now, the choreography of this is brilliant, because Ortega chose for both characters to begin singing stiffly and transition into becoming more fluid and fun after they both get into the music. The instrumentation and actual volume also follows this as it begins soft then gets much louder and upbeat. There is a curiosity that Troy has about Gabriella, and this is the beginning of his “existential crisis”. This song also captures every heterosexual female’s desire to have a man that falls in love at first sight. Which was a tactic not used lightly in the writing of the film, because there needs to of course be some kind of romantic hook in a Disney movie after all.
Next, we have the iconic “Get’cha Head in the Game” song. Now this one is a doozy. This song is representative of the “struggle” between Troy realizing how much he loves music while having been all about basketball his whole life. Back to the choreography, the dancing of the other basketball boys is almost cult-like. They surround Troy and dance with the basketballs causing him to have a melodramatic breakdown of questioning why he enjoys something that is typically more feminine (**cough cough** toxic masculinity **cough cough**). There’s a moment in this song where the spotlight is on Troy and it is almost like the boys are circling him not only physically, but mentally with their ideas that he should only care about basketball. The whole song is him questioning why his head isn’t in the game. Again, amazing choreography decisions and choices by the actor himself to display such deep personal confliction (even if it does feel childish at times).
Another thing that the whole production team and actors/actresses did well was portray the same songs but give them very different meanings. For example, Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel) sing “What I’ve Been Looking For”, and so do Gabriella and Troy. However, when Sharpay and Ryan sing it, it is playful, light, and has a “young” vibe to it. You know they are siblings, and it feels like they are singing this song together as siblings. While on the other hand, Gabriella and Troy sing this song and it becomes slow, relaxed, and a very intentional love song. Which is also telling of the two duo’s personalities, portraying the Evan’s as more out there and extroverted, and Gabriella and Troy as love-birds who like to sing secretively.
Now, finally we get to my most favorite song of the whole show: “Stick to the Status Quo”. Everyone pretty much knows this infamous song, and it’s not only because of the repetitive instrumentation or lyrics. Each group has one person who’s breaking this “status quo”, the baker, the hip hop dancer, and cellist all individually threaten the entire school’s normal way of functioning. This is exemplified by the repetition of the thunderous and aggressive “no no no no no no no stick to the status quo” lyric, and the keeping to the brainiacs, jocks, and skaters. These three people, and Troy and Gabriella deciding to veer away from their individual groups causes the whole school to have a crisis, and especially Sharpay who has always been the queen bee.
We then see our two favorite supporting actors, Taylor (played by Monique Coleman) and Chad (played by Corbin Bleu), get their groups to break up Gabriella and Troy so that things can go back to “normal”. Leading to the intensely melodramatic scene of Gabriella singing “When There was Me and You”, which causes her to realize she should have just stayed as the person people expected her to be. Which is also a deep audience hook, because we want Gabriella to win, and are heartbroken that Troy could even think these things about their relationship. However, the two groups realize that they’ve made a mistake when Troy is completely off his game, and Gabriella isolates herself. They then bring the two back together, and become supportive of their friends which is a complete switch from the message conveyed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
This is the moment we start to see the individual group’s dynamics start to shift. They begin to accept that people have multiple different interests and values, and they don’t have to only keep to themselves. They even help each other, and Troy and Gabriella, to succeed by helping them get to the callback. This is the turning point for the school, and the way in which they start to form their new cultural identity of being diverse and accepting.
This is especially seen through both “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together”. “Breaking Free” is more about Gabriella and Troy crafting their new identities, but nonetheless Gabriella is able to find comfort in combating her shyness through leaning on Troy, and Troy is able to express himself and his interests regardless of his basketball status. The moment in this song that particularly stands out to me actually has little to do with the two leads and their actions/lyrics, but rather with the incorporation of both Troy’s dad and Gabriella’s mom. When they both walk in and are zoomed in on, this is the moment that they are finally truly accepted by not only their school but their families. Which is a complete 180 from the mentality expressed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
We then transition into the finale, “We’re All in This Together”. This song is probably the most well known song from HSM, even to those who probably have never seen HSM fully. Everyone knows the iconic dance moves and lyrics of this song. It is also a celebration of the fact that they’ve made it and accomplished everything together which also celebrates the development of their cultural identities to be accepting of each other’s similarities and differences. The lyrics “we’re not the same/we’re different in a good way/we make each other strong” are the epitome of the new identity they’ve all created, and especially the new sense of togetherness they’ve all adopted. The instrumentation is repetitive, upbeat, and cheerful in order to emphasize this final conclusion.
Overall, there is a lot to appreciate artistically, emotionally, and aesthetically about High School Musical, but if there’s one thing I’ll leave you with it’s that there is a reason we are so connected to this musical (even now), and that is the way in which we as a society idolize togetherness, happiness, and diversity (even if it isn’t perfect). The music, emotions, choreography, costumes, and individual characters all work together to pull us in and keep us there, “together”.