Once a Wildcat, Always a Wildcat

By: Cassidy Johnson

“What team?!”

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.

How The Original Cast of HAMILTON is a Powerful Display of Community On and Off the Stage

By Cassidy Johnson

The pop-culture phenomenon and Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical is a revolutionary and symbolic piece of work for a plethora of reasons. It’s not revolutionary because it happens to feature a revolution, but instead, because the work shatters preconceived notions many held about a Broadway musical by integrating hip-hop and R&B themes, and the “color-conscious” casting to highlight the dichotomy between 1776 and modern America. What is truly revolutionary to me is the impact of the cast itself on stage and off.

A musical can have amazing songs, thoughtful choreography, and smart acting, but if it doesn’t resonate with audiences, then is the musical really great? That was never a question for Hamilton, written by playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda surely deserves the majority of the credit for how Hamilton got its success and subsequent name recognition –and he receives it– but the musical as we know and love today would not be the same without the original cast. The original cast of Hamilton, featuring Leslie Odom Jr. Phillipa Soo, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and more, not only created a visible community among the characters in their performances, but banded together behind the scenes, and continues to be symbolic or representation elsewhere. Miranda wrote an amazing script, intelligent songs, and emotional storylines, but he owes the success of his work to those who performed, and we owe them for what they have given us.

The first act of the musical (everything before Jefferson’s number “What Did I Miss?”) is where we see the greatest sense of community among the characters. It’s not particularly a hard conclusion to come to: sisters stick together, and war (and shared trauma) has a way of bringing people together. Like most musicals that I’ve seen or heard, the show begins with an ensemble number. “Alexander Hamilton” maybe one man but the effect we are told he has on the cast of characters before we even meet is impressive. We get a sense of each person in the ensemble without knowing who they are. From the start, it’s more important for the audience to see how each person is bonded by their connection to Alexander Hamilton before knowing any other name. Whether the character loves him in the first act, resents him, or leads him, they all possess an emotional connection to him. 

The finale of Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is a mirror of the ensemble introduction. Yet again, each character — now Jefferson instead of Lafayette — tells the audience Hamilton’s impact, not on them, but the nation. At the end of the musical, the characters, from Jefferson to Eliza, still have strong feelings about him, but they are further connected by their recognition of the lasting national contributions of one man. Alexander Hamilton is the single thread connecting each character who graces the stage; he goes from having a place in everyone’s life to having a place in the history of the nation. 

The first glimmer of budding friendly connection between Hamilton and other characters is at the end of “Aaron Burr, Sir.” After Lawrence and company take turns essentially roasting Burr, Hamilton makes his presence known by uttering “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Noticing him now, Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette ask who is this? In the next number, “My Shot” the three men are thoroughly impressed with the newcomer declaring the need to get him in front of a crowd. Hamilton has quickly differentiated himself from Burr, shown that he has a man of action and conviction, not someone who prefers to “wait for it.” Because of this Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette see him as one of them and respect him from there on out. He belongs with them in the revolution. We see the bond between this band of brothers grow through both renditions of “The Story of Tonight,” “Farmer Refuted,” “Right Hand Man” and “Ten Duel Commandments.” However, the bond between the quartet is something only seen in the first act and has no counter in the second. This is due to both practical and dramatic reasons. Lawrence dies and Lafayette goes back to France. The second act of the musical is less about how Hamilton gets to where he wants to be, and more about the challenges he faces as he keeps taking his shots. In the last half of the musical, the ensemble does not lend themselves to his rise, but his downfall.

The connection shown between the Schulyer sisters goes beyond their blood relation and represents the bond between women in that era and now. Much like the men fighting the Revolutionary War, the Schuyler sisters have a little community full of love, support, and sacrifice for one another. These women are bonded by shared societal expectations of young wealthy women. This is exemplified by “Helpless” and “Satisfied.” Both sisters are ensorcelled by the same man, but only one of them is aware of that fact. In “Helpless” Eliza introduces us to her loves tory with Hamilton, but in “Satisfied” Angelica gives us the real story, Eliza fell in love with his persona, Angelica fell in love with his mind, but she relents. She loves her sister more than anything else, and she confessed her feelings Eliza would be “silently resigned” and let her have him. She knows only one of them wins. Angelica sacrifices a life of love, happiness, and satisfaction so that her sister can experience just that. This devotion between Eliza and Angelica continues throughout the second act, unlike the bond between Hamilton and his friends. Peggy may be dead, but the remaining Schuyler sisters stick together. Even though Angelica and Alexander are still a bit flirtatious, Angelica never fails to stand by her sister. In “The Reynolds Pamphlet” Angelica crosses an ocean to be there for her heartbroken sister. Even though she and Alexander are now “only a moment away” she lets him know “I’m not here for you.” The sense of community among the women is stronger than any attraction to a man.

In my opinion, the sense of community the original Broadway cast of Hamilton formed off the stage is just as important as their performances on stage if not more. While their subsequent power results from the talent they showed on stage, the impact and symbolism of their actions as a group and as themselves actually moves me more. When reading the module materials related to Hamilton, I was struck by the Bloomberg article “How Hamilton’s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal.” And at the risk of straying from the prompt, I feel it is worth discussion. The article details how the cast argued for a share of Royalty Participation profits from the smash musical. In the 3-page long letter, they wrote to lead producer Jeffrey Seller the cast notes “we did not write the show, we didn’t choreograph, direct, design, or produce it . . . We do, however, take great pride and comfort in the knowledge that our contribution was just as vital as the aforementioned in the creation of HAMILTON an American Musical.” While going back and forth with production on offers and counteroffers the performers stuck together. Their position was that being allowed to “share in the success of this show that we have dedicated ourselves to for so long” would be the right to do and only add the legendary reputation that Hamilton was gaining. In the end, the original cast was successful, sharing 0.33% percent of net profits from all U.S. productions except Broadway and any future revivals. This display of community resonates deeper with me more than any performance on stage because the fight they fought for themselves was real. They knew worth, they knew their contributions, and were determined to be recognized and compensated for their efforts. 

As a person of color, you often expect that fighting for your worth will be more difficult than it should be. You already had to work harder to get in the door, and now you have to fight to be recognized for what you contribute once you’re there? That’s exhausting. But it’s stories like this that are inspiring to audience members like me. Due to the “color-conscious” casting, this community that sought proper monetary compensation looks like me. The symbolism of having persons of color play famous Founding Fathers and prominent members of society is amazing and forward-thinking. But knowing that an ensemble of people of color fought a battle that I may have to fight myself one day is both sobering and awe-inspiring.

The cast members banded together regardless of their gender unlike the characters they play in Hamilton. The single thread that tied them all together was the shared knowledge of their worth. They may not have agreed at every step of the negotiations, but they stuck together. Their community as performers was more important than any one person’s desires. To be corny, they took their shot and didn’t give up until they were satisfied. Forget Alexander Hamilton, it’s the story of the original cast that’s inspiring.