High School Musical: A Defense
Alright, so this may not be a complete defense of High School Musical and its sequels. It's more of a defense of the idea of HSM. Regardless, I was spurred to write something after watching High School Musical 3 with Sam - spreading it out over a week or so to spare him some of the pain - and after his recent blog post about it. This isn't a rebuttal to Sam's post, per say, because I don't find a whole lot in there to disagree with, but I did want to get a few words down about the shows. I'm sure people are already groaning over this post's title, but hear me out.
I've seen all three High School Musical movies. They feature the "typical" Disney formula: boy meets girl, other girl gets in the way, there's some conflict, and everyone comes out happy at the end. I could line up songs in each movie with how they could be replaced in the plot line of the other movies. Some of the singers aren't the best without the help of studio work (in fact, Zac Efron was overdubbed for a number of songs in the first movie because his vocal range is too low). I like the third one the best; the production value is higher, clearly because it was made for a theatrical release rather than a debut on the Disney Channel. The plot isn't the best, though. Sam already pointed out some loopholes. And by the third movie I'm tired of seeing Gabriella break up with Troy because she's being selfish.
That being said, however, there are some positives about the movies. They got younger people excited about musicals. There are mostly positive messages for the audience. The rage around High School Musical has died off, being passed on to the Jonas Brothers (for a little while at least), Justin Bieber, Glee, and a plethora of other things designed for the tween set, but it's a part of our culture now, and I think will be around for a while. For better or worse, it broke out Zac Efron - not just in movie musicals such as Hairspray but in other features like Charlie St. Cloud. Vanessa Hudgens is starring as Mimi in the Hollywood Bowl production of Rent, directed by Neil Patrick Harris. And Corbin Bleu is currently playing on Broadway in In the Heights. We might not all agree about their acting skills and vocal prowess, but they are branching out of their Disney shells and starting to be more successful.
Perhaps even better, though, are the stage versions. Disney pulled a good marketing (read: money-making) move when it translated the first two movies to the stage (and also making one act and "junior" versions of them at the same time). I performed in productions of both High School Musical and High School Musical 2, put on by the Eau Claire Children's Theatre, as the rehearsal accompanist, conductor and on the keyboard one book. Both shows were fun experiences. Produced in the summer, they attracted a wide variety of middle school, high school and early college students from the area around Eau Claire, students who didn't participate in ECCT's shows during the school year and, in some cases, didn't do other musicals at all because their schools did not do any.
(If you're on Facebook, you should be able to log-in and see a video put together from 2009's production of High School Musical 2 here. I've never tried Facebook links before, so hopefully it works.)
These shows got students singing and dancing, putting in 2+ hour rehearsals 4 nights a week over the course of six weeks. They made new friends and strengthened relationships with old friends. The music performed might not have been of the highest class - it wasn't Rodgers & Hammerstein or Sondheim, and besides, who are we to judge other people's tastes? - but it was fun. The pit was basically a rock band (with a few horns in High School Musical 2), and we had a blast playing the show - ask anyone who played (especially the guitar players): it was a lot of fun. The cast had a lot of fun. And shouldn't that be what performing is about?
Of course there are other musicals that can attract younger people. My niece loves Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Grease, Hairspray & Wicked. When I was growing up my sister and I watched Grease, Sound of Music, Little Shop of Horrors & West Side Story a lot (and listened to their soundtracks of course). The High School Musical franchise might not be the highest form of art out there, but it brought a lot of people to the musical genre, people who may not have otherwise gotten excited about it. Our next step should be to keep those people involved: in school programs (choral and otherwise) and productions; in children's and community theaters; as audience members and soundtrack listeners, in New York and across the country. Musicals are an American art form, a way of telling a story that can be more effective through music than without. (Can you imagine how boring the story of The Last 5 Years would be if told without song? How many of you read Wicked simply because you enjoyed Stephen Schwartz's musical version?)
If people can appreciate that the Harry Potter & Twilight series got young adults reading more, can't we do the same for High School Musical getting people excited about music and musicals?