It wasn’t explicitly said, but everyone knew it: boys weren’t allowed to watch High School Musical.
At least, that’s how it felt to me back in 2006 when the film first aired on the Disney channel. Even if a boy did watch it (which they could never admit), they certainly weren’t allowed to like it – the very idea went against every notion of masculinity society had ever taught us, and God forbid we challenge those!
In the ensuing onslaught of HSM-branded lunchboxes, pencil cases, and decorative erasers, the film remained a mystery to seven-year-old me. With its triple threat of singing, dancing, and romance (yeeurch!), the film was everything that boys were supposed to despise. And so, it came to pass that it was not until my 22nd year that I finally saw the High School Musical Trilogy.
Well, surprise surprise, it’s fabulous!
The first film begins with a Grease-like set-up: Troy (a hunky baseball jock) meets Gabriella (a pretty science nerd) at a New Year’s Eve party when they are randomly picked to sing karaoke together. It turns out to be a night to remember when, despite lacking any singing experience, both Troy and Gabriella just happen to have superstar voices, and although the two teens couldn’t be more different, there’s a spark between them! It feels like the start… of something new.
Right from the get-go, this is a tried-and-tested Romeo and Juliet scenario. Whilst Gabriella is in with the nerdier crowd at East High, Troy is part of the ‘Wildcats’ – an uber-popular basketball team who could never be friends with lame science geeks. Nevertheless, Troy and Gabriela refuse to stick to the status quo and romance blossoms between them – could it be that what they’ve been looking for this whole time was each other?
So far, so Grease, but where High School Musical sets itself apart from its problematic predecessor is in how it deals with this theme of difference. Whereas Grease essentially concludes that Sandy must change her entire personality in order to be a socially acceptable girlfriend, HSM ultimately advocates living your truest self no matter what other people think.
Troy and Gabriela’s relationship is an act of breaking free from social expectations and demonstrates the main theme of all three HSM films, in which individuality and self-expression are championed above all else. Characters are repeatedly in situations where they are told that they can only be one thing: a basketball player or a performer, a good student or a singer, a sportsman or a chef. What each of the films does is embrace this diversity of talents and identities and celebrates the characters when they decide they’ve gotta go their own way.
The cast also do a great job at creating characters that we care about and feel real, whilst also showing off some impressive singing and dancing skills. Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are charming as the central couple and have great chemistry together (unsurprising considering their real-life romance), meaning that it’s easy to feel invested in their relationship.
The ensemble cast are roundly excellent too, not least Ashley Tisdale and Ryan Grabeel as Sharpay and Ryan Evans, the supposed antagonists of the piece. These siblings want it all – the fame, the fortune, and more – and are seeking to bop to the top in order to achieve their dreams. There’s also a great bromance between Troy and his basketball buddy Chad, played by Corbin Bleu, which means that when Troy has to choose between prioritising singing and his sports team there are real stakes involved.
All three films have electrifying and inventive dance numbers thanks to the flair of choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega. The third film in particular features spectacular musical set pieces which evoke classics such as Singin in the Rain in their staging and costuming. Despite this, Ortega never allows the visual splendour of his films to distract from the characters, and so these ensemble moments are always balanced out by intimate solos such as Gabriela’s ‘Walk Away’ and Troy’s angsty ‘Scream’. Incidentally, I’d bet on it that the gravity-defying corridor seen in the latter surely inspired Christopher Nolan’s hallway scene in Inception – it’s just too similar.
At the end of the day though, none of this would work without Zac Efron consistently committing 100 percent to his role as a conflicted everyday teen. In every second of screen time he gets, Efron absolutely nails this character, pouring every ounce of charisma and energy into his performance with a ferocity one might associate more with a Shakespearean monologue than a TV musical. Although at this point his career was just getting started, the versatility shown in his later films is on full display here as he navigates scenes of real emotion alongside the broader singing and dancing sequences.
All in all then, the High School Musical films are a treat for everyone. Fun, funny, emotional, and exhilarating, they’re an ideal pick-me-up for a post-lockdown binge watch, reminding us to believe in ourselves and care for one another. After all, we’re all in this together.