FIXING IT IN POST
Admittedly, High School Musical is not exactly the normal fare round these parts. If you’re one of Ken’s regular readers, you probably haven’t watched the movie. But just from the clips scattered throughout this review, you can see it has halfway-decent pr`oduction values — for TV, anyway — and some undeniable talent in front of and behind the camera. It doesn’t fit with any other group of movies Jabootu’s contributors tend to cover…it’s not sleazy drama, silly melodrama, or schlocky genre trash, and it’s certainly not a gross-out comedy. Most importantly, what it is (a kids’ movie) usually comes with a definite downgrade in quality expectations, unless you see “Pixar” on the case.
That’s why I debated writing this review for a long time. Turning my intellectual guns on an After-School Special had the slightly unsavory quality of shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, there’s a reason for that. Most made-for-TV kids’ movies, even ones from the Disney Channel, are not “bad” in the sense that the dedicated Jabootuist would use the word. It might be more accurate to say, following Pip Vandergeld’s lead, that they are thoroughly and predictably lame. Ripping them apart, for me, would be like recapping an episode of The Bachelor. Lots of digging, very little gold.
But what tipped the scales for me was my belief that the accumulated lameness of High School Musical eventually makes it Jabootu-worthy, much like what happens when a snowball rolls down a hill. This accumulation happens on two levels at once. On a micro-level, as I hope I have amply demonstrated, the lack of attention paid to details makes this movie a nitpicker’s playground.* Now sometimes that doesn’t imply a problem with structure. The execution of the ideas might just have been botched. It happens, even to the best writers. Ever read Two Noble Kinsmen? Exactly.
* (The last movie I saw that ignored its own backstory and script to this narrative-destroying level was, I think, I Know Who Killed Me, fittingly autopsied elsewhere on this site.)
When you step back and look at the big picture, though, the macro-level fundamentals aren’t solid either. A lousy setup throws together two wimpy main characters who are advanced passively through the plot by their horrible friends until their Designated Moment comes around…at which point they are able to achieve their dreams only by out-badding the bad guys. There’s no excuse for that level of incompetence. Fixing the dialogue and pacing issues might take several re-writes, but the core issues could have been fixed in one draft with some minor changes. Let me demonstrate:
- Make Gabriella a student at East High from the beginning. This one change would simultaneously solve several problems, or at least provide the basis for solving them. First, it removes the “too many coincidences” problem in the opening. Second, it provides a basis to establish a pre-existing relationship between Gabriella and Taylor, which could then properly mirror the Troy-Chad friendship. Third, it makes the cliques more believable by implication…the walls between student groups are so strong that Troy has never even noticed the cute girl in the back of homeroom, who has herself never dared to talk to him. (He’s her fairytale, you see.)
As a bonus, this change would allow an opening scene between the two leads where Gabriella knows who Troy is. This knowledge could contribute to her stage fright (otherwise too easily conquered later), it could motivate clever dialogue that would pique audience interest, and — once we found out Gabi was a Wildcat too — the resulting dramatic irony would be stronger, and exist on more levels, than the relatively weak-sauce example we get here.
- Make Gabriella a real girl. The primary way to do this is to write her, not to complement Troy, but to reflect him. By that I mean: give her friends equivalent in strength to his; give her a goal she wants as much as he wants the championship (in her case, the scholastic decathlon would serve nicely); and make sure that what she does proceeds from who she is, and not from the predetermined needs of the script. Making Gabriella Troy’s equal in this manner is a fantastic way to cement the early attraction between the two characters, as each one would sense a kindred spirit in the other. It would also serve as a great basis for conflict later in the film, as their preexisting worlds and wants drive a wedge between them.
- Give all six of our leads strong, personal motivations. As I said earlier, the only character who expresses (early and often) both a goal and a desire to achieve it is Sharpay. Giving the same things to Troy and Gabriella, at a minimum, is a must. But what about Ryan? Basically, in this movie, he doesn’t matter. What drives him? Is it just a desire to please his sister, which would be good enough for this type of movie…or is it something more? What does he have at stake — that is, what will he lose if he doesn’t win? Come to think of it, we never get much sense of that from his sister either. From what Taylor tells us, Sharpay lives for the stage so much that her personal identity would be compromised if Gabriella beat her out. But just putting that into one line of Sharpay’s dialogue would be a boon for her character.
Chad and Taylor could really benefit from this too. As the best friends, they are the key to the emotional core of the movie — in that seeing why they like our leads helps to make our leads likable. We need to know early on that the best friends’ identities are tied up in winning these competitions. But we also need to get an explicit sense that they value their friendships with Troy and Gabriella for more than just the competitive edge they get in being teammates with such all-stars. This gives Chad and Taylor reason to try and split up our lovebirds when their new romantic attachment threatens to affect East High’s chances of winning the big competitions, and it also gives them a personal reason (not just a competitive one) to seek to reunite Troy and Gabriella when the break-up plan inevitably goes south. Their recognition that they might sacrifice their goals in the process, and their willingness to do so if it helps their friends find happiness, would serve as their redemption.
- Don’t be afraid to make Troy and Gabriella partly wrong. Recognizing and correcting a fault in one’s self, or a sin one has committed, is key to the personal growth that drives good movies of this type…indeed, good fiction of almost any type. Even the greatest heroes can mess up, or lose track of what’s most important, from time to time. Troy definitely does both in the movie we see, but he never has to apologize for any of it. (Indeed, he’s apologized to, in spite of all his mistakes.) And Gabriella, being impractically perfect in every way, has no flaws to correct. So let the power of their puppy love threaten their goals and friendships. But make them pay for their errors, and make them atone too.
- Don’t make Sharpay and Ryan defeat themselves. The Evans siblings, being the stars of East High’s drama department, should be confident enough not to be afraid of a little competition. So have them start by displaying that confidence, rather than trying to diminish the unknown threat that Gabriella poses. Why should they care if a couple amateurs presume to audition? Until, that is, Sharpay and Ryan hear Troy and Gabriella sing. That should be what shakes them up. Then the threat posed by the callbacks is real to them, and whatever the writer has them do in response to it will feel more motivated. More importantly, it makes their conniving more understandable and less ridiculous. They’ve never had to really fight for what they want before, and people like that may well resort to underhanded tactics in order to win. (As a bonus, showing early on how seriously the Evanses take our leads also would increase the esteem in which the audience holds Troy and Gabriella’s abilities.)
- Deemphasize the adults. By making all the changes I’ve suggested so far, a writer would have two strong leads, two solid villains, and two important best friends. Add Kelsi the composer into the mix, and you have seven good characters. You might even have time for Zeke’s baking subplot, or finding something to do with Jason and Martha. But you know what you wouldn’t have? Any room for the adults…or any need for them. The conflicts between the kids would be strong enough to sustain the whole movie by themselves. If you’re really writing a Grease knockoff, you shouldn’t need adults in conflict anyway. Grease didn’t.
- Make the heroes make a choice. I still think it’s a mistake to hold all three competitions at once. But the bigger mistake is to have the Wildcats cheat to win, allowing Troy and Gabriella to walk away with all the prizes. As the Rolling Stones sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Wait, no. They did sing that, but that’s not…ah, here it is. “You can’t always get what you want.” If the essence of drama is conflict, then the essence of conflict is choice. Why not force Troy and Gabriella to choose between honoring their commitments and following their dreams? (Perhaps “whims” would be more appropriate.) This would inject some vital and much-needed drama into the fourth act of the script.
- Consider a “Rocky ending.” In other words, consider an ending where, in losing, our heroes still achieve their goal. Troy and Gabriella didn’t set out to win the leads in the school musical, after all. They just wanted to sing with each other, and show everyone another side of themselves. So it’s not a loss for them if Sharpay and Ryan win. In fact, a good writer could use the opportunity to engineer a pyrrhic victory for Sharpay. Yes, she and Ryan are given the leads in the musical…but Troy and Gabriella will be their understudies, and will get more than the usual one performance in the lead role. Oh, and the two upstarts were so good that Ms. Darbus wants to do the show the way Kelsi originally envisioned it, rather than giving into Sharpay’s bedazzled proclivities. Our drama queen would thus get what she wants, but at a steep price, which would be a sort of cosmic justice.
Or maybe you, as the writer, have decided that you’d rather have a completely happy ending for your heroes after all. The beauty of this setup is that the material can still accommodate you. Given Sharpay’s type-A personality, the arrangement I just described might outrage her so completely that she turns the role down flat rather than submit to such unbearable conditions. Or she might throw such a huge tantrum that Ms. Darbus changes her mind, and awards Troy and Gabriella the lead roles after all. Either way, you could still give our two leads everything, and leave our villainess with nothing. Hey, I only said to consider a “Rocky ending.” You could still go with something less nuanced. This is being written for the Disney Channel, not the Royal Shakespeare Company.
These changes, while simple to describe and easy to understand, are not small in scope. Making them would require a full rewrite. But they fix almost all the structural problems with the story, and many of the surface script problems as well. You could even keep most of the songs, since their vague lyrics could fit a variety of contexts. In other words, nearly every one of the building blocks Peter Barsocchini would need is already in place. All he’d have to do is use them better.
So let’s make these changes, and see what High School Musical might have looked like. To play fair, I promise not to stray too far from the actual script, and I won’t use the “Rocky ending.” Can I devise a plausible alternative structure where the heroes still manage to win it all? Here goes:
Troy Bolton, East High’s basketball star, is vacationing with his family at a ski lodge over Christmas break. On New Year’s Eve, he attends a party where he finds himself shanghaied into singing a karaoke duet with a cute girl named Gabriella (“Something New”). They form an instant connection. She seems stunned to see him, but he isn’t able to figure out why. They part at midnight…why was she talking about pumpkins right before she left?
Back at East High a week later, Troy reunites with his best friend Chad…and Gabriella reunites with her best friend, Taylor. Both Chad and Taylor want to talk about extra practices and preparations for their upcoming competitions (a basketball game for the boys, a scholastic decathlon for the girls.) During homeroom, Troy is surprised to see Gabriella, and stays after class to talk with her — to the surprise, and amusement, of their friends. “Where have you been all my life?” he asks her jokingly. “In the back of the room,” she responds in earnest. “Where no one could see me.”
Over the next couple of days, Troy and Gabriella try to find times to meet, but their commitments to their teams keep them apart (“Get’cha Head in the Game” rewritten — or a replacement number). Finally, they decide to sign up for musical auditions, not only because they enjoyed singing their duet, but because they hope to spend time together during rehearsals. Neither Chad nor Taylor is happy about this development, but both hold their peace, thinking it will go nowhere.
Audition day arrives, and Troy and Gabriella both do well in their individual numbers (“What I’ve Been Looking For”). This delights Sharpay and Ryan Evans, co-presidents of East High’s Drama Club and presumptive leads in the musical, who are happy to have good talent backing them up and who anticipate larger-than-normal crowds because of Troy’s participation.
Then, as Sharpay and Ryan audition for the leads, Troy notices a despondent Kelsi sitting offstage. She is unhappy because the Evanses are not performing the number like she’d written it. Gabriella, wanting Kelsi to hear her version of the song at least once, asks if she and Troy can sing for the leads as well. Ms. Darbus says there’s no rule against it. Sharpay thinks it’s cute that they’re trying…until she hears how good they sound together. When Ms. Darbus posts the results sheet the next day, everyone is shocked to see that the drama teacher wants callbacks.
Sharpay and Ryan try and persuade Troy and Gabriella to accept other roles in the show. But as the lovebirds have promised Kelsi they would try, they turn down the Evanses. Meanwhile, the school is abuzz at the news that the hoops star and the brainiac are trying their hand at musical theatre. Some other kids confess their secret passions, including basketball player Zeke and scholastic decathloner Martha (“Stick to the Status Quo”). This makes Chad and Taylor unhappy.
Having been thwarted in their attempts at coaxing Troy and Gabriella to step aside, Sharpay and Ryan set to work on Chad and Taylor. Their point is simple: how much time will Troy take away from basketball, and Gabriella from the scholastic decathlon, in order to find time for callback preparations? Chad and Taylor reject the idea, but not without some doubt.
Meanwhile, Troy and Gabriella are happy to have an excuse to spend some time together. But, of course, their schedule hasn’t lightened. In order to make time for their rehearsals, they start showing up late to, or leaving early from, their extra practices. Eventually, they each miss a regular practice as well. This causes a showdown between Troy and his father, who is the coach of the basketball team. It also sends Chad and Taylor running back to Sharpay and Ryan, who have been proved right.
Sharpay convinces Chad and Taylor that the source of the problem is Troy and Gabriella’s relationship, and agrees to help them break the couple up. Chad finds out Troy’s rehearsal schedule and passes it on to Taylor and Sharpay. To prevent Kelsi from spoiling his sister’s plan, Ryan waylays her by asking for her help with the Twinkle Towne sets.
When Troy arrives in the music room for his scheduled rehearsal with Gabriella and Kelsi, he finds only Sharpay, asking for his help with a read of a romantic scene. Taylor, pretending to discuss scholastic decathlon business, delays Gabriella’s arrival at rehearsals just long enough so that when she gets there, she sees Troy and Sharpay locked in an embrace through the window. Heartbroken, Gabriella slips away quietly (“When There Was Me and You”), and later splits with Troy.
Chad and Taylor’s dreams have come true — Troy and Gabriella are no longer together, and they’re not rehearsing for the musical anymore. But Troy is not practicing as hard as he used to, and Gabriella seems listless and detached. To complicate matters even further, the shy girl in their homeroom (Kelsi) is also really depressed…and then Chad and Taylor learn why.
Finally admitting to themselves what bad friends they have been, Chad and Taylor decide to come clean to Troy and Gabriella, and beg forgiveness. Troy is angry, while Gabriella is just stunned. But both decide to forgive their friends when Kelsi points out how distracted they allowed themselves to get. All the kids realize how thoroughly Sharpay has manipulated them, and start practicing again, harder than ever. On learning that her sabotage failed, Sharpay asks Ms. Darbus to reschedule the callbacks to conflict with the scholastic decathlon. She gets her wish.
Our heroes learn that callbacks have been rescheduled. An appeal to Ms. Darbus goes nowhere, so they hatch another plan. The drama teacher arrives to the callbacks only to find a large crowd having turned out, courtesy of Chad. Sharpay and Ryan perform their number to moderate applause (“Bop to the Top”). Meanwhile, Gabriella competes in the first round of the scholastic decathlon, then skates over to the auditorium — literally, with the skater kids assisting in her speedy transit. Her place is taken by the useless-till-now Jason, who actually answers a critical question correctly. Turns out he was secretly a science savant, a fact he didn’t feel comfortable revealing.
Troy and Gabriella audition (“Breaking Free”), and the crowd’s reaction is so positive that Ms. Darbus awards them the lead roles. An outraged Sharpay’s protests reveal her role as the architect of the scheme to stop Troy and Gabriella from competing. Ms. Darbus strips the Evans siblings of their Drama Club presidency, giving the job to Kelsi. However, they remain the understudies for the leads after Gabriella pleads on their behalf. Ryan is grateful. Sharpay just storms off.
Later that night, with Gabriella and Taylor in attendance, Troy and Chad lead the Wildcats basketball team to the championship. Sharpay arrives to announce that she’s had a chance to think about what she did, and she apologizes to Troy and Gabriella. Our leads celebrate their championships and their strengthened friendships (“We’re All in This Together”).
In a post-credits scene, Sharpay begins to plot her revenge.
You see? Most of the structural issues are fixed. The beginning is more motivated. The middle is stronger, and proceeds more naturally from what went before. The ending stays true to the characters as they were established. I even found some important roles for Jason and the skaters in the last act, and so justified their otherwise-too-prominent presence. But even with those changes, it’s basically the same movie. Same characters, same story beats. Only it’s…well, better.
Yes, I am fully aware that I have never sold — or even finished — a single movie script, and yet I am offering unsolicited corrections of a work written by a professional screenwriter that went on to spawn a billion-dollar franchise. That is most definitely arrogant of me. But I don’t care. Why? Because I think I’m right. Sorry to blow my own horn, but there it is. I am willing to state that I think this outline would represent a significant improvement over what actually got shot, and to submit my belief…and my work…for public judgment.
Now, would my version of High School Musical be a timeless classic of cinema? No. But the original isn’t either. And in any case, mine doesn’t have to be. It could be a fun movie that kids would watch and enjoy a hundred times. And then, when they revisited it ten or twenty years later as adults on a nostalgia kick, they could be surprised how good it still was.
In any case, my outline is certainly much better than what we got, which reads like Peter Barsocchini banged out a semi-sloppy first draft, and then Disney greenlit it without demanding revisions.
Oh, wait. That’s exactly what happened. Are you even surprised? Because I wasn’t.
As I close this review, I believe I have an obligation to fulfill. There were some questions I posed at the beginning, on my critics’ behalf, that I will now answer.
Aren’t there more important things in the world to worry about? Of course. War, global poverty, starvation and disease in Third-World countries, natural disasters, the sorry state of our education system, the burgeoning national debt, the encroachment of federal power on state and local affairs, the near-certainty that our next president will be either a conniving felon or a boorish lunatic…and those I just ran off, stream-of-consciousness style. I could write pages more in the same vein.
Don’t I have anything better to do? Oh, absolutely. I mean, just in terms of writing projects alone, I have a draft of a novel started, several screenplays in various stages of completion, one mega-project requiring research that is as yet undone, more (and smaller) review projects on the backburner, and a website of capsule movie reviews to maintain. And then there are the shows I watch, and the friends in other states and cities I keep up with, and the actual life I try to lead. Believe me, I could find many other uses for the hours and days I have sunk into this review.
Didn’t I watch, and love, a bunch of crap TV as a kid? Oof…yeah, I did. I really did. I grew up just as Nickelodeon Studios was coming into its own. So I cut my teeth on all sorts of lowbrow stuff. Some of it holds up pretty well, even if it now comes across as below my level — Doug, for example, or Rocko’s Modern Life, or most of Salute Your Shorts. But then there’s the stuff that hasn’t aged well, and that list is a lot longer. Perhaps the worst example: I remember watching, and being scared by, Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a kid. But then I revisited all the episodes I could find a few years back. Forget Halloween and The Shining. Even Ernest Scared Stupid is playing in a different league than a Canadian horror program made to fit a thirty-minute block on a basic cable kiddie network. So, yeah. I did watch a lot of crap TV. And I loved it. Not only can’t I cast the first stone, I was part of the generation that opened the quarry.
Couldn’t I just accept that this movie’s devoted fans have different tastes from mine and leave them in peace? Well…no. No, I can’t. But answering that will also require me to answer the first question I asked myself, literally thousands of words ago. Why? Why waste time writing a comprehensive takedown of a bad film that wasn’t meant for me, that seems to have pleased its target audience, and that in any case isn’t hurting anybody?
Well, I would never presume to speak for Ken, or for anyone else who engages in this enterprise. But my answer is: to pay it forward.
Let me explain. I knew a teenager a long time ago who grew up on Star Trek, and who thought it was the greatest universe ever. He would marathon the films overnight once or twice a summer, and chalked up the fact that he always fell asleep during Star Trek V to how late it was. (Funny how he never had any trouble staying awake through either Star Trek IV or Star Trek VI.) Then, one night, while taking a break from writing a paper in college, he visited a bad movie website that he had recently discovered. Imagine his shock when he saw, among the reviews, what can only be described as an evisceration of Star Trek V.
My young friend, being a bit of a pedant, became…let’s say “miffed.” Even if he’d never really liked Star Trek V, he had an allegiance to defend. So he started reading in the hopes that he would catch the writer in an error, and have the excuse to tell him off. But by the end of the review, being a fair-minded sort of pedant, he found himself converted to this other point of view. He had never been able to articulate his problems with William Shatner’s hot mess of a vanity project. And here was this weird guy from Chicago doing it for him — and making a hell of a lot of sense in the process.
That review was my young friend’s first real introduction to film analysis, and the beginning of thinking about art and cinema in a whole new way. It also served to instill in him the perspective that maybe some things, however much you loved them when you were a kid, just aren’t worth defending…at least in part, and perhaps as a whole. For that, he owes Ken Begg a debt.
Now he’s repaying it by publicly trashing High School Musical. On Jabootu, no less. In other words, Ken, you have only yourself to blame for all the work I just put you through. Mwahaha!
Believe me, though, this review isn’t some form of revenge. I knew I would pay too dearly for that to be my motive. Analyzing this trash has been a singularly depressing experience that made me and several of my friends question my sanity. It’s like walking through a cute little house you were thinking of buying, and taking note of everything wrong with the interior: poor tiling, tilted doorjambs, broken windows, moldy baseboards, a leaky roof, the loose bannister on the staircase, the gaping hole in the middle of the master bedroom floor. Then you read the contractor’s report hoping for better news, only to find reports of termites, faulty wiring, and a frame built with rotting wood on top of a cracked foundation. Who would want to buy that…err…showplace?
And then, as you’re leaving, you see a stupid young couple putting in an offer because the paint job looks nice and the landscaping is to die for. Wouldn’t you want to smack some sense into them? Yeah, me too. Hence this review.
Look, kids — particularly those of you who are now actually young adults — this movie and its sequels don’t deserve your love. Do your future selves a favor, and stop embarrassing them. Don’t create message boards. Don’t quiz each other about what you know. Don’t visit clickbait listicles, don’t patronize Pinterest boards, don’t build obsessive Tumblrs. For the love of all that is good and holy, don’t recreate scenes from the movies! And writing fan-fiction about what is, in essence, bad Grease fan-fiction? Really? You do that, and you’re no better than the Fifty Shades of Grey readers. Is that what you want? Do you want Peter Barsocchini to be your E.L. James? If I can convert just a handful of you to my perspective, this will all have been worth it.
Failing that, maybe I’ll give the Drauts, and the Chads, and all the regular T-Fest attendees, a few laughs. That would be good too.
The review proper has come to an end. But since this year marks the tenth anniversary of High School Musical’s release, I thought it might be fun to write an appendix for the curious detailing the career trajectories of the major figures in this review.
PETER BARSOCCHINI (writer) was a successful columnist and semi-successful novelist (including the novelization of Mission: Impossible) before his screenwriting career. The most impressive of his three screen credits before this turd was the sub-par actioner Drop Zone with Wesley Snipes. Since 2006, his résumé mostly owes its heft to this movie — he wrote both sequels and the Mexican adaptation, received a “characters by” credit for the Sharpay spinoff, and will receive another one for High School Musical 4. Aside from a couple of crappy flicks several years ago, though, that was it for a long time. He’s had a busy 2016, though…getting a screenplay credit for a made-for-TV Passion musical with Tyler Perry (!), and writing an animated kids’ movie called Ping Pong Rabbit.
KENNY ORTEGA (director) originally made his name as a choreographer. His first big job in Hollywood was on the Jabootu-essential Xanadu, which served as the shameful swan song for the legendary Gene Kelly. He also found work throughout the 80’s on a lot of John Hughes and Brat Pack-related movies, including such classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, and Dirty Dancing. His first big successes as a director were the early-90’s cult classics Newsies and Hocus Pocus, and he also did a few episodes of Ally McBeal and Gilmore Girls. Since 2006, he’s been heavily tied to Disney, directing and choreographing both HSM sequels and two other Disney Channel movies. He also choreographed the “Best of Both Worlds” concert tour (the gimmick being that headliner Miley Cyrus performed both as herself and as her alter-ego Hannah Montana). Upcoming credits include remakes of Dirty Dancing and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
KAYCEE STROH (Martha Cox) has perhaps my favorite story among the actors in the cast. While working as a dance instructor in Salt Lake City, she took her students to a dancers’ audition for a Disney Channel movie in order to encourage their ambitions. The movie turned out to be High School Musical, and Stroh herself was offered a role. Aside from the sequels, she only has a couple of minor credits to her name. She currently lives in Utah with her husband and two children. In case you’re interested, here is a video of her stopping by East High earlier this year as part of a mini-reunion with Monique Coleman. Yes, she still seems able to pop and lock and jam and break.
RYNE SANBORN (Jason Cross) had a few small acting gigs before this one, appearing in episodes of Everwood and Touched by an Angel. Aside from the sequels, and a truly appalling-looking flick called The Adventures of Food Boy — starring his HSM classmate Lucas Grabeel — he hasn’t done anything onscreen since. Apparently he attended the University of Utah, majoring in architecture. Presumably he’s trying to forget these movies ever existed. In which case, good for him.
CHRIS WARREN JR. (Zeke Baylor) had already appeared on The Bold and the Beautiful, and had a major role in the pretty decent Love & Basketball, before he put on East High’s uniform. Other than the sequels, he had some sporadic guest spots on TV and a few movie roles…mostly in kid-oriented fare like Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101 (starring Britney Spears’s younger sister) and Unfabulous (starring Julia Roberts’s niece), Disney’s Good Luck Charlie (an actually-decent sitcom), and one of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Then he dropped off the map while fighting a lawsuit against his parents, who had embezzled a huge chunk of his career earnings. His most recent major appearance was a multi-episode recurring role on the tiresome ABC Family* social drama The Fosters, which I guess is where Disney Channel alums go to prove their tolerance bona-fides.[*As of last year, the channel is now called Freeform. The name change actually relieves me, as they spent years being one of the least family-friendly networks you could find on basic cable.]
OLESYA RULIN (Kelsi Nielsen) was born in the Soviet Union, and immigrated to America at the age of eight. No stranger to the House of Mouse prior to High School Musical, she had appeared in three Disney Channel Original Movies, as well as a couple TV guest spots and some direct-to-video horror junk. Now that’s a colorful résumé. Of course, she also appeared in both sequels, where (as I mentioned earlier) her role kept getting bigger. Since 2006, her best parts have mostly been one-and-dones on TV shows, including some heavy hitters like CSI: Miami, The Mentalist, and NCIS. She’s now landed a series regular role on a darkish Marvel superhero show from Playstation — yes, apparently they do shows now too — called Powers. I do consider her acting one of the best parts of this movie, so I’d like to check it out. But it’s not worth buying a Playstation. So never mind.
BART JOHNSON (Coach Jack Bolton) was very familiar to fans of bargain-basement TV prior to picking up the clipboard for East High, with guest roles in — among others – Clueless: The Series, Tremors: The Series, Babylon 5, and the deservedly-mocked Walker, Texas Ranger. He’s kept pretty busy since 2006, garnering 40 credits in the ensuing decade. However, most of them are in stuff that no more than a handful of people have seen, and maybe the most impressive entries are this movie’s two sequels and a three-episode stint on The Client List. Fun fact: he is married to actress Robyn Lively, which means he is in-laws with Robyn’s sister Blake. Yes, Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame. Maybe he should prevail on Ryan Reynolds for a role in Deadpool 2.
ALYSON REED (Ms. Darbus) was once a fairly big Broadway name, giving award-nominated performances in Cabaret and Marilyn, and playing Lt. Cmdr. Jo Galloway during the national tour of A Few Good Men. (You know. Demi Moore’s role.) Then she moved into screen acting, where she had over 50 credits — largely in television — before her role here. You can catch her work in such diverse series as Frasier, L.A. Law, Law & Order, Matlock, Murder, She Wrote, Murphy Brown, Numb3rs, Party of Five, The X-Files, and I could go on, but I think you get my point. All told, she has played Ms. Darbus five times, in this movie and its two sequels, an HSM karaoke video game, and a failed Disney Channel pilot. She continues to stay busy, with her last decade of work including appearances in Bones, CSI, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men, The Mentalist, Modern Family, and holy crap has this woman been in a ton of much better stuff.
Unbelievably, MONIQUE COLEMAN (Taylor McKessie) was 25 when High School Musical came out. Her previous credits included a lot of TV work, notably guest spots on Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle, Boston Public, and Veronica Mars. Then Disney seems to have stalled her career a bit, as her most impressive achievement for quite a few years was a fourth-place finish on Season 3 of Dancing with the Stars. That’s what you get when you partner with Louis. But in the last couple of years, she picked up a couple regular gigs, including the lead in a made-for-Verizon horror series (again, that’s a thing now) that looks interesting. She also had her own online talk show called GimmeMo’, dedicated to “empowering today’s youth.” I think they’re empowered enough, thanks.
For a long time, CORBIN BLEU (Chad Danforth) was the actor from this movie I most wanted to punch in the face. Turns out that’s because he is a pretty good actor, and what I really wanted to do was punch his character. Bleu is a smart guy…he turned down an offer of admission from Stanford to take the role of Chad. His best-known part before this was as the young Tommy Webster in Galaxy Quest (!) — pedal to the metal, Corbin. Recent post-hair credits include a lengthy stint on One Life to Live and guest spots on Psych and Castle. He also competed on Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars and (of course) did very well, finishing in second place behind Amber Riley of Glee. His best routine, in case you’re wondering, was probably this Michael Jackson-inspired jazz trio. However, he also pissed me off with a High School Musical jive. Urge to punch rising…rising…
For the record, LUCAS GRABEEL (Ryan Evans) is not gay. He just played Sharpay’s gay brother in High School Musical and its sequels. And a closeted baseball star in two episodes of Veronica Mars. And an out-and-proud photographer in Milk. Gosh, I wonder how those rumors might have gotten started? But seriously, he isn’t gay…in fact, I think he dated both Brittany Snow and Sara Paxton at some point, which makes him a very enviable man in my book. His early association with Disney was strong, as he played Ethan in the third and fourth Halloweentown movies (the third is the best, in my opinion). He’s moved away from that, though, and has done a dozen episodes of Seth MacFarlane series. Grabeel is currently a regular on ABC Family/Freeform’s Switched at Birth.
Of the six main kids, ASHLEY TISDALE (Sharpay Evans) was the most well-known at the time High School Musical premiered, thanks to her regular role as candy-counter girl Maddie Fitzpatrick in the execrable Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. But to be fair to her, that was just one of her nearly thirty credits, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role in Donnie Darko. She might just boast the best post-Wildcat career too, although much of it has come behind a mike. Her biggest success was as the voice of Candace Flynn, the older sister of the title characters on the insanely popular (and pretty good) Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb. She also co-headlined the CW cheerleading series Hellcats with fellow Disney Channel alum Alyson Michalka, and voiced the lead in the short-running (because terrible) Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch cartoon. Oh, and she would return to her hot-pink roots one more time, in the straight-to-DVD monstrosity Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure…perhaps one day coming to a Jabootu near you.
While her breakout role did come in High School Musical, VANESSA HUDGENS (Gabriella Montez) had a handful of credits before this, mostly in television. Since ending her days as a Disney girl, and seeing her recording career fizzle after two pretty weak R&B-lite albums, she’s tried to make the transition to cinema sexpot. This move has met with some success, though I’m not sure whether it has been helped or hindered by her repeated nude photo scandals. People tell me we’re on number four now, but to be honest, I lost track. In the wake of what happened to Jennifer Lawrence, people just stopped noticing these things.
Career highlights for Hudgens include running around as a lingerie-clad prostitute (and ninja…don’t ask) in the Zack Snyder action-fantasy Sucker Punch, running around as a hot jungle tour guide in the Dwayne Johnson actioner Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and running around as a bikini-clad murderous party girl in the Harmony Korine ick-fest Spring Breakers — which also features Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson, making it possibly the greatest waste of eye candy in cinematic history. Her most recent major appearance was a return to high school, playing Rizzo in the FOX Network telecast of Grease: Live, where she stole the show right out from under Julianne Hough. She also played the title character in a Kennedy Center stage production of Gigi, and has an upcoming main role in the NBC/DC Comics series Powerless, where her character (an insurance adjuster) has to deal with superhero damage claims. Danny Pudi from Community, Alan Tudyk from Firefly, and Vanessa Hudgens all on one set? Damn. There goes twenty-two hours of my life.
So we finally come to ZAC EFRON (Troy Bolton). Hey, speaking of Firefly — his first screen role, believe it or not, was as a young Simon Tam. This might just be the worst thing Joss Whedon has done to humanity…even counting the Buffy Season 8 comics. For a long time, Efron seemed to be trying to ride the wave of his big success, with lead parts in the Hairspray remake, the light comedy 17 Again, and the wanna-be-soulful Charlie St. Cloud. During this period, he also had a meaty lead alongside Claire Danes and Christian McKay in the criminally underappreciated Richard Linklater period drama Me and Orson Welles, which is still his best performance to date. Not kidding…you should check it out. And yes, he and Vanessa Hudgens were a couple off-screen as well as on.
But then around 2012, something changed. Whether it was the emotional fallout from his breakup with Hudgens in 2010 finally catching up with him, or a revelatory moment in the last throes of his bout with drugs and alcohol, I couldn’t possibly say. Maybe it was his embittered realization that his biggest post-High School Musical success came from lending his voice to the profitable but critically-lukewarm The Lorax.
In any event, Efron suddenly tried to start putting as much distance between himself and Troy Bolton as possible. He booked roles in small indie dramas like The Paperboy (bad choice) and the JFK-assassination flick Parkland (not much better). He started headlining disastrously poor wide-release films like That Awkward Moment and We Are Your Friends. The latter, by the way, currently sits at the sixth-worst gross per screen of any wide-release film ever. Most un-Disney of all, he turned to crass comedies like the two Neighbors films with Seth Rogen, the upcoming Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and worst of all, Dirty Grandpa with Robert DeNiro (!).
The one thing these films all have in common, other than their general lack of quality (though the Neighbors films have their moments), is that there is absolutely nothing in any of them to connect Efron with his former image as the clean-cut teen heartthrob loved by every American girl in his generation. Can you be clean-cut and still have shaggy hair? Well, anyway, you know what I mean. Troy Bolton wouldn’t be caught dead dancing Magic Mike-style routines on stage…something Efron has now done twice. And Troy certainly would never get drugged out of his mind and then wake up on a beach, wearing only a fanny pack, with a swastika of dicks drawn on his forehead.
Though Efron has never made the reasons for his “Efronaissance” public, he’s also given his fans enough lines to read between. While he has occasionally made noises about returning to his first franchise, he missed the tenth-anniversary reunion earlier this year (though he did record a video for it). Then four months later, in an interview with Men’s Fitness to promote Neighbors 2 and a Baywatch remake, he had some choice words about his own early career: “I step back and look at myself and I still want to kick that guy’s ass sometimes. Like, f[ornicate] that guy. He’s done some kind of cool things with some cool people…but, I mean, he’s still just that f[ornicating] kid from High School Musical.” Even with a little Instagram damage control a few days later, seems like we can count out Troy for a cameo return to East High in the fourth installment.
To sum up: Zac Efron is busy breaking free and trying something new, and he doesn’t want to stick to the status quo. Well…I guess we’re not all in this together.