The REAL High School Musical
The sequel to Disney's cash cow premières tonight. How does the franchise play with actual drama teachers?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
"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)