High School Musical: Is the Status Quo Worth Sticking To?

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. 

To Be(long) or Not to Be(long): Fitting in through the Lens of Hamilton

Late in the summer of 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda shaped national conversation with his Broadway debut of Hamilton: An American Musical. Non-thespians were skeptical at first; but the musical quickly became popular in theatrical and non-theatrical circles alike. Unlike many other musicals of its time, Hamilton experienced a very long and noteworthy honeymoon phase. Spontaneous fangirling met formal accolades in the months and years following Hamilton’s release. However, the musical that was once considered a unifying force across political spectrums, genders, and races has since been met with intense criticisms that threaten to taint the legacy of the musical itself– an ironic twist given the musical’s primary themes. Pundits argue that Miranda’s rewriting of American history is problematic because it mischaracterizes the ethical foundations of white American history and dismisses the pivotal roles of people of color. But truth be told, nothing about Hamilton is uniquely problematic. Miranda tells the story of American history as it has always been told: as an outward presentation of diversity, inclusion, and opportunity underlined by racist and patriarchal systems that do not allow people of color to tell their own true stories. Using its cast’s racial composition as a starting point, Hamilton upholds some notions of belonging while dispelling others. The notions are continuously challenged and upheld through subtle and explicit details that support the complexities of the musical and of American history itself.

There exists an inherent bond between members of a traumatised group. Minorities in the United States share a history defined by their own oppression that ensures a basic level of community within groups. And increasingly commonly, minority groups share a knowledge of each others’ traumatic histories that establishes solidarity between groups. This solidarity has become increasingly evident in political discussions, communal relationships, and on the Broadway stage. Hamilton’s majority-minority cast existed as a community before they were united on the Broadway stage, and they will continue to exist as one long after. It is partially this pre-existing bond that makes Hamilton’s on stage relationships mesh so seamlessly. Requiring that lead roles be played by people of color creates a sentiment of belonging that is realized on and off stage.

It is important to note that while Hamilton consists of a mostly minority lead cast, the casting is not color blind as much as it is color conscious. On the broad scale, it is very intentional that Hamilton’s lead roles, aside from King George, are played by actors of color. However, in the more specific relationships between characters, there is no consideration for how race may or may not affect the dynamic between or authenticity of character relationships. For example, in the original Broadway cast, the Schuyler sisters are played by actresses who are of Black, Filippino, and white descent. Most of the family units throughout the musical consist of equally mismatched racial and ethnic pairings. Through this casting decision, Hamilton regards both its actors and characters as a collective unit that “belongs” together, and attempts to pass this phenomenon off as organic.  

Through musical composition, Miranda creates an in-group of “intellectuals”– for lack of a better term– that distinguishes the thought leaders of the late 18th and early 19th centuries from characters who were less involved in the foundation of U.S. politics. In Hamilton, intelligence is communicated through rap. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who rap the most out of all of the characters, are consistently positioned as two cunning politicians on opposite sides of a heated, but well thought out, debate. Marquis de Lafayette, whose undeniable wit was integral to the Colonies’ success in the Revolutionary War, raps the fastest verses in Broadway’s history as a testament to his quick-mindedness. In act 2, Thomas Jefferson makes up for his absence in act 1 by dropping dramatic and fast-paced verses that challenge the audience’s ability to keep up. The lyrics, “If Washington isn’t gon’ listen to disciplined dissidents, this is the difference, this kid is out!”, remind the audience of Jefferson’s remarkable way with words. The ability of some characters to communicate with each other using quick verses, hip hop references, and second languages highlights that those characters share similar levels of cultural competence and intellectual understanding. 

Characters George Washington, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens also have their moments in the rapping spotlight, but rather notably, Angelica Schuyler is the only woman to grace the list of rappers throughout the musical. From her opening number to the final curtain call, Angelica’s intellect is undeniable. Though much of her aptitude is suggested through explicit lyrics (“I’m the oldest and the wittiest[…]” or “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine”), her performance during “Satisfied” assures audiences that she is on the same level, intellectually, as her male counterparts. On the opposite spectrum, it is worth noting that King George is the only main character who is not a woman that never raps on stage. In fact, all three of his numbers follow the same simple melody. Even King George’s lack of rapping suggests a perceived simple mindedness, which is subliminally suggested as a partial cause to his ultimate defeat in the Revolutionary War. In this way, Hamilton transcends assumed gender barriers by creating a semi-inclusive community of intellectuals, but still keeps some characters– and even audience members who struggle to keep up with fast-paced lyrics– from joining that intellectual community.

Furthermore, today’s political divisions are largely based on identity politics: alliances are formed based on community held assumptions about race, religion, and sexual identity. However, Hamilton’s construction and representation of political factions creates communities that supersede those identities. When considering race, act 1 of the musical largely focuses on the U.S. Colonies as a singular political entity as they fought against Great Britain. The only physical distinction between these two groups is their costuming. In regards to religion, though some allusions and direct references to a deity are sprinkled throughout the musical, there is not a unifying or divisive religious presence that affects the story’s overall development or notions of belonging. Like most Broadway musicals and recounts of American history, sexuality outside of the heteronormative spectrum is largely absent. Although there are some hypotheses of a possible bromance between John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton himself, the historical evidence is not strong enough, nor is the design of the characters’ relationship intentional enough, to confidently suggest that Hamilton challenges any norms related to sexuality. Hamilton’s characters are assumed to have a foundational sameness that allows the plot to focus on only the most important differences between characters– which in this case, is political affiliation. 

Even while phenotypical differences between the cast are ignored throughout the musical, the script– or lyrics– does include some nods to the historical reality that race was on the forefront of political debate during the nation’s founding. In an emotional recount of the Battle of Yorktown and those moments immediately following the British surrender, John Laurens narrates, “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.” To which the beloved George Washignton dramatically replies, “Not. Yet.” The whole musical, but especially this moment, relies on a level of cognitive dissonance that the audience has the responsibility of rectifying. The real George Washington, who was a racist, slave-owning elite, is played by a teary-eyed Black man who expresses some sort of solemnity– or is it hopefulness?– about the fate of slavery in the United States. The duality of the George Washingtons, and of every character in Hamilton, exists to expel the notion that people of color are absent from the narrative of the birth of America. The musical itself is fixated on the belief that people of color belong in the American narrative. 

However, the progressiveness of using people of color to tell the same whitewashed version of American history in order to include them in the narrative is doubtful. It is true that Miranda created a sense of “belonging” for both actors and audiences who had never seen themselves in these stories before Hamilton. However, people of color should not have to “belong” in white history to be included in American history– they have stories of their own. In one perspective, using people of color to tell white history suggests that, outside of any patriotic narrative, people of color do not belong in American history. In Hamilton and in the real world alike, their presence only exists to further the goals of white supremacy. From this perspective, Hamilton is like diversity without inclusion: quotas are filled and boxes are checked, but nothing about power dynamics has been redressed nor have injustices been remedied. 

Hamilton is a story about belonging. It is about belonging in history, belonging in presence, and belonging in remembrance. As many questions as Hamilton answers about belonging, it also asks. Just as there is duality in each of Hamilton’s characters, there are valid merits and critiques of the work itself. It harms while it helps. It innovates while it sticks to the status quo. Hamilton created spaces for some groups to belong where they never had before; and we can only hope that it opened doors for those groups to belong in the real world– with the same passion and power and influence– just as they do on the Broadway stage. 

By Zoë Mulraine

The Savior and the Saved: How White Feminism Victimizes Women of Color on Broadway

Everyone wants to play the hero. In every story, the audience bears witness to the transformative journey of a character, or characters, who gain the strength to face the challenges inherent in a narrative plot. The musical stage is no different. What was once a role restricted to prototypical protagonists–white, straight, males– has become a place where people with marginalized people can tell their story. Still, representation on the musical stage has not come without a cost, especially for characters with intersecting identities. While book writers and societal pressures alike allowed some authoritative roles to women relatively early in Broadway history, victimless roles were reserved for white actresses only. Broadway is yet another space where white women use their racial identity to transcend the boundaries of a patriarchal society while feminist movements leave women of color powerless. Through race, white women are allowed to be the heroes– or the saviors– of the Broadway musical, while women of color routinely exist only as objects that need saving. Portrayals of women of color on Broadway are one artistic showcase of the shortcomings of white feminism. 

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, protagonist Anna Leonowens is everything you would not expect from a powerful leading woman: widowed, homeless, and technically foreign. Still, her independence, strong will, and most importantly, whiteness, give her an aura of authority that challenges even the King’s. Notably, Anna’s authority is assumed both from herself and from those around her. Imperialism has taught whites and non-whites alike that whiteness is superior– that non-Western cultures must be cleansed by whiteness. This idea permeates theater just as it permeates politics. From open to close, Anna is destined to be the story’s savior.

In Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, Kim is meek but passionate, indigent but loyal, devoted and humble. Kim’s story is defined by contrast. The musical begins in a brothel with scantily dressed women who vie for the attention of handsy men. In her modest dress and with her young face, she is the one who attracts the handsome American soldier. At first glance, this single act may seem empowering to young women– the modest girl gets the guy. However, this premise, at its core, is rooted in slut-shaming. As such, it is inherently anti-feminist. The story line fails to redeem itself and only further victimizes Kim. While her love story begins to seem like it will save her from her impoverished conditions, it only makes her more vulnerable and sets up her tragic ending.

Despite their drastic dissimilarities in background, Anna and Kim still have much in common. They’ve both experienced tragic loss, been thrown into new environments, and must rely on the wills of men for their ultimate destinies. Though their initial circumstances may give them a similar perspective on their surroundings, they are unmatched when it comes to their capacities to shape their own outcomes. Anna is adamant about getting what she wants; she expresses her desires fiercely and openly. Kim is steadfast in knowing what she wants; but conversely to Anna, her life is largely a waiting game. She lacks control. Anna is active while Kim is passive. Anna becomes the savior while Kim must be saved. This staunch difference between the two characters culminates in their ultimate fates at the end of the respective shows. Anna is praised for her Western wisdom while Kim is respected for her most basic feminine quality: motherliness. Even though both characters are fighting the same war as women against the patriarchy, they are unevenly equipped to fight their respective battles. American society expects women of color to fight the same war as white women when given half the resources and twice the battles. This shortcoming reflects on Broadway just as it does it American politics.

Anna’s identity as a white Westerner allows her to surpass most constraints she faces as a woman. Even as the “other”, Anna’s whiteness makes her the most powerful character in The King and I. From the second she steps foot in Siam, viewers understand that the writers are framing her as the hero. She is easily identifiable as the “good guy.” She’s kind, she’s likable, and she voluntarily teaches English to brown children. Rodgers and Hammerstein immediately give Anna a believable moral authority that shapes how she moves throughout the show, and how other characters move around her. This authority develops and culminates in her ability to persuade the king to do “what’s right” at the end of the show. In essence, Anna convinces the king that he can reach Western standards of goodness. More than gender, race is what defines and divides the relationship between Anna and the king, just as it juxtaposes the relationship between Anna and Kim. 

In sharp contrast to Anna, Kim is always powerless in her relationship with Chris, her American soldier. This powerplay is dramaticized by the fact that their story takes place in Kim’s own homeland. At the beginning of the story, the writers may have viewers convinced that Kim’s weakness is solely due to the fact that she is a woman. Given that even today, male domination in a coed relationship is often seen as “natural”, this assumption is, unfortunately, reasonable. However, her relationship with her eventual husband is entirely defined by his needs and desires. But this dynamic is not entirely due to gender norms or differences– when Kim’s undesired suitor, Thuy, obsesses over her, she fiercely takes control. She tells him “no” with strength and dignity; when he further disrespects her, she murders him with no regard to his maleness. However, viewers never see this forceful nature when she is confronted by whiteness. Kim’s submission to Chris aligns perfectly with the widespread supposition that Western culture bows to Eastern culture. Kim showed viewers that she could assert her dominance within her own culture, but she was not able to effectively assert her own desires and needs within her marriage to her American husband. In Miss Saigon, Kim’s relationship to men and to whiteness demonstrates how white feminism fails women of color.

Kim’s relationship to whiteness becomes more apparent in the number, “I Still Believe”, in which viewers finally see Chris’ new, blonde, American wife. Not only is Kim replaced by a “proper”, white wife, but Ellen, Chris’ new wife, has influential power in her relationship with Chris that Kim never had. When Kim and Ellen finally meet, it is obvious that Ellen has authority in their relationship, too. Like Chris, Ellen’s authority comes from her whiteness. In certain respects, Kim’s relationship with Ellen mirrors her relationship to Kim. While Kim and Ellen come from very different cultures, they share the struggle of being viewed as inferior to men in their day-to-day lives. Still, the intersection of Kim’s gender and race is an issue that Ellen does not have to live with or even become aware. Like Anna, Ellen’s whiteness earns her at least a little bit of respect, not only with Kim, but also with her white husband. Viewers can imagine that had they been given the opportunity to witness an interaction between Ellen and the men living in Vietnam, she would have likely been able to assert some sort of power over them as well. Ellen’s whiteness is contrasted perfectly against the background of the Vietnam War, in which white people were acting as “saviors” for the people of Vietnam. The power dynamics brought about by the war would have given her a sense of dominance over even men from Vietnam. The intersectionality of race, gender, and culture within the show present very challenging questions about how appearances shape the power dynamics within their worlds.

As much as actresses Donna Murphy and Eva Noblezada use specific body language to portray their femininity, their movements are just as important in displaying their races. For example, Donna, who plays Anna, is often situated higher than all other characters on the stage. By contrast, Eva, who plays Kim, often crawls across the stage and frequently performs from a kneeling position. These subtle differences highlight the ways in which the characters take up space, which has been an integral subject in modern discussions of feminist and race relations in the United States. The feminist movement centers around not only general equality across gender lines, but also the simple desire to be seen and heard. The King and I makes clear, without explicitly saying so, that Anna believes she is meant to be seen and heard. Conversely, Miss Saigon’s Kim is consistently scared to take up too much space. Together, these shows demonstrate that white women have a certain confidence that women of color lack, largely due to the latter’s exclusion from feminist movements.Art has always reflected the political moment. Art can also help shape the political moment. Broadway writers and performers have a responsibility to at least be conscious of the subliminal messages that exist in any piece of art– but especially their own. Anna of The King and I and Kim of Miss Saigon are multi-dimensional characters that cannot be reduced to single issues, such as race, class, or gender. Their dynamic experiences do not exist in a vacuum. So, while it is a viewer’s responsibility to critically analyze any character or performance, it is also their responsibility to understand them– to explain them with compassion. It is through both a critical analysis and compassionate understanding that we can begin to unravel the intricacies of feminist movements as they are performed– sometimes with subtly– on the Broadway stage.