When I sat down to watch High School Musical again as a 21-year-old woman, I expected to see the straightforward love story that I understood as a child. A heartthrob basketball player and a quirky science girl fall in love and fight against all odds to audition for the school musical. And admittedly… that’s exactly what I got. But! I also noticed a little more nuance than I did 15 years ago. This musical is one big commentary on self-discovery and inner conflict. More specifically, High School Musical uses music composition and choreography to challenge our views toward social norms and encourage individuality.
The best song that shows this (and also my favorite) is “Stick to the Status Quo” which occurs during the end of Act I. The song happens just after the school learns that the star basketball player Troy Bolton, likes to sing and wants to audition for the school musical. For some reason, this is very controversial. But soon after, Troy’s exploration into unexpected hobbies inspires other students to do the same. This entire song shows the tension between the people who want to expand their identities and their peers who want them to assimilate. Altogether, the composition and choreography of this number help visualize this social tension and further the musical’s purpose to encourage self-discovery.
Let’s start with the music. The song begins simply with a casual percussive beat and an electric guitar riff in the background. The vibe is upbeat yet suspenseful, mirroring the cafeteria energy and the tension in light of the recent news. We watch as a basketball player lightly paces and then steps forward. He clearly has something on his mind. Suddenly the music goes quiet and only the suspenseful percussion remains. The attention lies completely on the athlete as he confesses his desire to bake (*gasp* such a faux pas).
Suddenly the music crashes in much louder and stronger than it was before. The percussion picks up speed, the electric guitar amps up energy, and a strong piano melody is introduced. Combined with the crowd simultaneously screaming, “NO NO NO!” with this crescendo, the audience very easily feels the emotion of the room. The crowd of students are upset and are very energetically rejecting the idea that a basketball player can be anything other than sporty.
The rest of the song follows a similar pattern. The music softens when a character confesses their interests, and then immediately picks up energy as the crowd responds negatively to the news.
Clearly, David Lawrence doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. He is very deliberate through his lyrics and composition to show the conflict of straying from conformity. These characters want to be more than their high school stereotypes, but the fact that they are met with resistance in both the music and the lyrics helps show the challenges of straying from expectations.
Okay, the choreography is arguably the best part of the song. I will die on this hill. There’s just something about fiftyish teenagers dramatically stomping on lunch tables that gets me every time. But besides being an unintentional comic relief for me, the choreography of this song is the perfect visual of groupthink. Just before a character reveals their secret, their peers are engaged. The music is soft and the crowd leans in. But the second the spotlighted character reveals something unexpected about their own identity, the crowd erupts into a frenzy. They clutch their heads and belt to the sky. They thrash and stomp, almost like a tantrum, as they beg the character to stop talking. Their movements are aggressive and punctuated. It feels very disciplinary as if they are trying to force the spotlighted character to assimilate through strength and power.
This blatant shift in style from soft to aggressive shows the audience that the revelation was deeply upsetting to their social environment. As long as the character acts according to their expected identities, there is no problem. Everything is peaceful. But the moment a character shows a bit of individuality, it’s chaos.
The unified movement also contributes to the song’s portrayal of social norms. Throughout the song, the crowd of students move as one with energy and passion. Not only are they in sync with each other in terms of how they think, but also how they move – like some sort of hive mind. This effectively visualizes the idea of a social group and the people within them sharing the same thoughts and behaviors. It also emphasizes the power imbalance between the crowd and the individual and shows the pressure to act according to the group.
Given that the song overall portrays the clash between individuality and the pressure to abide by social norms, the choreography is very effective in visualizing this dynamic.
Now, before you say no shit sherlock, I completely agree with you. This theme isn’t very difficult to pull from the production. But I wanted to reflect on how differently I resonated with High School Musical as a child versus as an adult. As a kid, I thought “Stick to the Status Quo” was just about dumb high school politics. To be considered “cool” or “popular” you can’t embarrass yourself by doing anything other than what your group does. Don’t get me wrong, the song is certainly about that. But as an adult, I digested the message a bit differently. The song isn’t just a commentary on high school politics, but is also a reflection of our society as a whole. We, like East High, have social guidelines that we must follow in order to be accepted by our communities. Behaving outside of those guidelines might result in backlash (although probably not as dramatic as a cafeteria flash mob). So yes, High School Musical might be a very simple coming of age story with uncomplicated storytelling. But perhaps teenagers dancing on tables will also inspire you to have an existential reflection on our society.