The most successful musical of the year hasn't appeared on Broadway. It's on TV's Disney Channel. It's a made-for-TV movie called High School Musical and if you're above legal drinking age, you're excused for not having heard about it until maybe a couple of weeks ago when the publicity drums for High School Musical 2 started thumping. The original was the story of Troy, an Anglo teen jock (the winning Zac Efron, who has gone on to co-star in the movie "Hairspray" and is reported to be in negotiations to star in a new version of "Footloose"); and Gabriella, an Hispanic braniac (winsome Vanessa Hudgens) who meet cute at a karaoke sing-along and then break the caste taboos at their New Mexico high school by falling in love with one another and with the idea of singing together in the school's annual musical. Since it first aired 18 months ago, the show has become a bonafide phenomenon: an estimated 200 million TV viewers around the world have seen it, the cast album was last year's top seller, a stage version opened in Chicago earlier this month; a ice show is planned for later this year and HSM has been repackaged as a videogame, a fragrance and a clothing line.
Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I watched the movie a couple of weeks ago and smiled the whole way through. It's surprisingly charming. At a time when most teen comedies center around raunchy sex jokes, Troy and Gabriella consummate their relationship with a chaste kiss. The supporting characters are diverse: black, white, and Hispanic, overweight, nerdy and apparently gay, rich and working class. The parents aren't dismissively dumb, desperately trying to be cool or too involved with other things to care about their kids. The moral of the tale is that there's more to everyone than meets the eye—one basketball player bakes in his spare time; one geeky girl has a secret passion for hip hop. And there hasn't been a group of kids who've had as good a time singing and dancing since Mickey, Judy and their gang were putting on shows. (There are clips galore on YouTube if you want to take a quick peek; click here to see one of my favorite numbers).
The inevitable sequel that debuted on Friday night isn't as good. The book, about the kids' summer vacation before senior year, is flat-footedly self-conscious. Leave alone the fact that I can't figure out why Disney would wait until late August to air a summer break show. The musical numbers, whose songs again come from assorted writers, simply line up in imitation of their predecessors in the original. Some critics have suggested that High School Musical 2 and future versions need more irony (as though kids are suffering from a lack of exposure to that) but what they have forgotten is that despite the recent adult attention, the show is for kids. And both versions of High School Musical provide a safe haven for their tween fans—youngsters between the ages of 7 and 14 looking for some cool but non-threatening version of what it will be like to be older. But what really delights a theater populist like me is that the shows are also getting a new generation used to the idea that people can express emotions by breaking into song in the middle of a field or a dance in the middle of a basketball court. In other words, they're creating a new audience for Broadway. It's no surprise that the Disney folks are behind this. As a major producer of Broadway musicals, they've a vested interest in stocking the pipeline with future paying customers. Whatever the reason they’re doing it, they, and High School Musical, deserve an A for the effort.