The REAL High School Musical

The sequel to Disney's cash cow premières tonight. How does the franchise play with actual drama teachers?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Samantha Butler sounds casually precocious – very "Little Miss Sunshine" – as she describes her part in the musical her Maine drama camp is staging this summer. It's a play within a play.

"I play Susan, 'an overdramatic audition,' " says the 13-year-old, with a wry laugh.

The production: "High School Musical," based on the 2006 Disney Channel movie that became a $100 million juggernaut and a tween culture phenomenon, spawning a No. 1 soundtrack album, sing- and dance-along DVDs, professional stage versions, and an ice show – not to mention new iPod-friendly stars including Vanessa Hudgens. Its sequel, "High School Musical 2," premièred at Disneyland in California Aug. 14 – a first for a Disney Channel production. It airs nationwide tonight. There's already talk of a cinematic release in 2009.

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"I like the message that it brings across [that students should cast aside old jock/nerd stereotypes]," says Samantha, whose acting credits include a role in "Godspell." "But I really think it's pretty corny."

"HSM," in its studio-produced forms, does take Disneyfication to dizzying heights. Its young stars are pictures of sugar-pop perfection, their troubles never far from sweet resolution. That can make the production appealing to aspiring young talent – middle schoolers appear that make-up the bulk of the fan base. But it draws mixed reactions from drama teachers who tread real stages in the sometimes heroic, often harrowing world of real-life school musicals.

Many point first to a major upside. "When I was in high school the musical-theater kids were sort of the outcasts. What's interesting is that musical theater is kind of cool again, and I think Disney's 'High School Musical' has had some effect on that," says David Armstrong, producing artistic director at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, a community theater that ran statewide school-musical awards in June and offers a camp for students this month. Like many others, he also credits the resurgence of Broadway musicals since the 1990s.

Now, shows such as "Wicked" and "Spamalot" are huge successes. An adaptation of "Hairspray" is finding big-screen fans, just as "Chicago" did in 2002. Disney classics have also yielded critically acclaimed musicals, notably "Beauty and the Beast," which just ended a 13-year run, and "The Lion King."

Student actors, Mr. Armstrong says, are paying attention to what other schools are staging, and then pushing the creative envelope. "A lot of high schools are doing things way off the beaten track," he says. "It's not all 'Grease' and 'Bye Bye Birdie.' " Among the winners this year: "Urinetown" and "Seussical." That new hipness doesn't necessarily help Disney's case with "HSM's" namesake set.

"I direct both middle-school and high-school theater programs," says John Tilford, theater director at Unity High School in Tolono, Ill. "The middle-school-age kids adore it, watch it, and sing it all the time," he writes in an e-mail. "The high-school kids ... find it immature."

Tamara Eaton, another Illinois middle school teacher, notes that many seventh and eight graders still lack the vocal range to keep pace with "superbly talented" Disney cast members. Still, there's that on-target plot line: A hoops star who's starry-eyed for singing – and for theater girl – but can't seem to pursue both without letting down his team (see review)

"This summer, I had two students involved in a local professional production of 'High School Musical,' " says Karin Stratton, a drama teacher at Pike High School in Indianapolis. "I took my 6-year-old daughter to see it, and she loved it…. Disney got it right, stealing from both 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Grease,' plus not putting in too much 'lovey-dovey kissing.' It reaches right where the 6- to 14-year-old should be."

Its reach might even be profound. Curly-haired Disney star Corbin Bleu told The Denver Post he had met more than one fan who told him "HSM" had altered an outlook, even allaying thoughts of suicide.

At the creative end, Ms. Stratton suggests that the screenplay-type dialogue works for some high-school actors. Her own students find "HSM" "cheesy," she says, but they also know this: "It really does sell tickets."

"If you want to make money in your company, the way to do it is by hooking on to any and all movies and television shows that have plays or musicals of the same name," says Deborah Baldwin, artistic codirector of Performing Arts in Children's Education, a nonprofit organization in Columbia, Mo. Ms. Baldwin has no desire to stage a version of "HSM," which she calls fluff. She prefers dramatizations of young-adult novels such as "Bridge to Terabithia."

The money swirls when school and community theaters perform "HSM" – licensed by Music Theatre International (MTI) on Disney's behalf. Max Brown, chair of the theater department Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kan., staged four sold-out performances of the play last winter.

"We had lines around the school waiting for the ticket booth to open," Mr. Brown says. The production included big screens around the stage to show live-action shots. They weren't the play's only grand-scale feature. "The royalties paid are huge," Brown says. "For 600 seats per night, at $7 a ticket, we were charged $895 per show."

MTI declines to comment specifically on the number of organizations that have acquired performance licenses. "Several thousand already," says Jessie Johnson, a licensing agent, "with more coming in every day."

That doesn't mean schools need Disney to stage successful musicals. High schools that show up at the 5th Avenue Theater's awards run the gamut, director Anderson says, from schools with very little money to high schools that lay out tens of thousands of dollars on productions.

"We find that both groups are able to pull off really high-quality shows, and engage the kids in a major way," he says. Some take a professional approach, casting only the best actors. Others cast everyone who auditions. "They're very inclusive, there will be 200 kids in the show … and they're able to do something quite amazing. Having money really doesn't make a difference."

What does matter: persuading students to come out and sing. There, several drama supporters agree, "HSM" retains a starring role. "Does it bring lots of kids to the theater? It did for us," says Brown. "I think the larger question is, will they stay involved? We're doing 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' next year. I guess we'll see."

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