We return to East High the next day, only to find that Sharpay has decided to start her morning by digging her karmic grave even deeper. She and her brother are still unopposed for the leads in the musical. Yet she’s brownnosing Ms. Darbus with the gift of a scented candle, as if auditions were going to be a tight battle and every brownie point might help. Overkill, thy name is Sharpay Evans.
Ms. Darbus starts the day by reminding everyone that “musicale” auditions will be held that morning, lasting till noon. Wait. WHAT? School started yesterday! The sign-up sheet has only been posted for twenty-four hours, and now we’re having auditions? Then she moves on to a lecture about Shakespeare. That’s weird. It sounds like she’s starting class. But yesterday, she had just enough time to make morning announcements and hand out six detentions before the bell rang and the students left the room.
So, are homerooms at East High full-length classes, like they were at my high school? Or are they brief periods where the teachers make announcements and take attendance before the students begin the rest of their day, like they seemed to be in the previous act? Is it too much to ask the people making the film to stay consistent with their choices?
Cut to Troy after homeroom, putting a few books away in his locker and no doubt reflecting on the life-changing value of that seventy-five seconds’ worth of Shakespeare he just learned. Chad tries to entice him into a free-period practice, but Troy offers up some lame excuse about being behind on homework. How lame is the excuse? Chad proves smart enough to call it into question.
Of course, it’s obvious to us that Troy is heading over to the auditorium so he can skulk around while continuing to think about auditioning. But because he couldn’t offer an excuse good enough to deflect Chad’s suspicions that something is up, he now has to lose first his best friend and then his father en route. Credit Where It’s Due: This is a fun little sequence, and it goes down smooth. Although I have to say that if I were an auto shop teacher and somebody cut through my garage without permission, I’m not sure I’d be so blasé about it.
Troy finally reaches the auditorium, moving backstage between hiding places in a manner guaranteed to get him noticed by anyone paying attention. Fortunately for our aspiring James Bond, everyone is too busy preparing for the imminent arrival of Ms. Darbus to care. No sooner has he taken up his position, in fact, than she sails down the aisle toward the stage, a string of thespian wannabes trailing behind her like cygnets following a mother swan. She takes her position on the stage, a cute but dorky-looking girl sliding into position behind her.
The students, now seated, gaze up at her as she delivers a speech of inspiration. I wait for her to say “We are warriors!” — alas, in vain. Maybe she was getting there, but she hears a class bell go off and inexplicably mistakes it for a ringtone. Doesn’t this woman hear that bell every day? This is your brain on cellphones, I guess.
In any case, she describes the audition process, introduces Cute But Dorky as Kelsi, the composer*, and then we are treated to the standard Terrible Interviewees Montage that we all should have suspected was coming. In fact, I can’t think offhand of a possible musical-audition-gone-wrong example that we don’t see. Screecher with bad rhythm? Check. Word mangler? Check. Off-key but trying to sell it? Check.
Future failed opera diva? Postmodern types into performance art? Sudden-onset stage fright? Of course. Cutaway shots to important characters reacting with various degrees of shock, confusion, and dismay? Yes, folks, it’s all here! And as a bonus, we get a completely inexplicable ballerino audition. He doesn’t sing a note, but manages to take the breath from both Sharpay and Ryan — read that any way you like — before he dashes off-stage. Those of you who didn’t guess that we hear crashing noises immediately afterward have failed your BTE (Basic Tropes Exam), and should transfer to the remedial course.
* (High school musicals have student composers? Well, I guess that would explain the songs here…)
Meanwhile, presumably realizing that he would certainly be caught backstage, Troy has wheeled a janitor’s cart into the entryway at the back of the auditorium and is crouching behind it. This has the dubious benefit of barely obscuring him, in the most obvious possible manner, from anyone on stage. Or any seated person who turned around.
Or, for that matter, anyone who is likewise sneaking in to watch the — oh hai, Gabriella! She smiles knowingly when she forces him to admit that he’s hiding from his friends. Of course, she’s not auditioning either. And she’s hiding in the same place as Troy. The only reason the faint stench of hypocrisy isn’t wafting through the air is because Gabriella doesn’t yet have any friends that need hiding from.
Troy offers the following commentary on Ms. Darbus’s criticism: “She seems a little…harsh.” (Oh, you freakin’ baby. An impartial viewer will note that the drama teacher is quite restrained in most cases, struggling to say something nice whenever she can, and lapsing into brutal honesty only once. If Troy Bolton is the voice of his generation, we’ve raised a passel of wimps.) Then he scrambles behind the mop again as Sharpay and Ryan are called to the stage. They’re the only couple signed up, so why do they have to — oh, whatever. Gabriella joins him, since she’s also in hiding.
Say, speaking of that…why is Gabi even there? No, seriously. I want to stop and consider this question before I move on. She didn’t sign up when she had the chance. We never saw any indication that she was thinking about a walk-in audition during the time we spent with her. Yet here she is. And she wasn’t drawn by her fascination with Troy, because she had no idea he would be lurking behind a mop when she arrived. I could just shrug and say “IITS,” but I’d like to find a semi-plausible reason that follows from the established story.
What I think, and it’s admittedly just speculation, is that she could be there because of Sharpay. Follow me through on this one. Taylor has repeatedly attempted to entice Gabriella to join the scholastic team, right? Well, perhaps those efforts finally bore fruit, but of the wrong sort. Maybe Gabriella thought to herself, “I’ve already done the whole scholastic team thing. That was fun, but hey, new school, right? Let’s relive that karaoke high!” And if I’m right, that means the ultimate cause for her audition-crashing is Sharpay’s decision not to simply ignore her — since Taylor never would have recruited Gabriella without Princess Pink’s not-so-divine intervention.
Of course, my proposed interpretation of events requires Gabriella to actually be a character with thoughts and feelings of her own, rather than a cipher of a goody-goody who always and only acts in the way most convenient to advance the plot toward its predetermined climax. So I must be wrong. Because a cipher is all she is. That’s a point we’ll pick up later, though, when I have more evidence to support my claims.
Kelsi, who has been accompanying all the other hopefuls, asks Ryan what key to play in…only to find that she’s been locked out of their process. And this is when we get our first hint of how the Evans siblings operate: to wit, on a different plane of existence. They sing the same song as everyone else (the title is “What I’ve Been Looking For,” if you cared), but they brought their own pre-recorded up-tempo soundtrack.
They receive some assistance with minimal staging and equipment operation — needless to say, no one else got help. They even get microphones! (Sharpay’s is bedazzled, as if you couldn’t have guessed.) Most importantly, they have worked out a whole choreographed routine, which they execute almost to perfection. Granted, it’s entirely overdone and way too showy, but what else would you expect from Sharpay?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I kind of admire this scene. It’s extremely efficient. What we see during the song gives us a wealth of insight into all the major characters present, without even a single line of dialogue to aid the process. Off the top of my head, here’s what I noticed:
- Sharpay and Ryan are hard workers, and one of them, at least, is detail-oriented in the extreme. They prepared for their audition like it was a dress rehearsal, turning it into a mini-show of its own. As a result, they’re light-years beyond anyone else we’ve seen so far.
- At the same time, we also can’t help but see them as faintly ridiculous. From their silly vocal exercises to their excessive choreography — I mean, not every lyric needs to be accented by its own unique dance move! — it is clear they have overprepared. It’s hard to take seriously someone who feels the need to bring an H-bomb to a slapfight.
- The audition is clearly very unsettling for Kelsi. She may not have liked the many ways her song was just mangled, but here she is faced with something worse…a well-executed interpretation that is completely at odds with hers aesthetically. (And major props to Olesya Rulin, by the way. Her facial acting is so natural that I didn’t notice how perfect her choices of expression were until the fourth time through. [Yes, I admit it. Four times.])
- Gabriella seems amused, Troy seems underwhelmed…and both of them seem to have forgotten why they were behind the mop. They have slipped into the back row of seats, maybe in an attempt to give Sharpay a heart attack when she spots them.
- Am I the only one who’s slightly queasy watching Sharpay and Ryan performing this number together? “What I’ve Been Looking For” only makes sense as a love song. And while I’m sure siblings love each other in a fraternal way, I’m equally sure you understand that I meant something a little more…intimate. That’s as far down that road as I care to go.
By far the most interesting character to watch, though, is Ms. Darbus, who sits in her seat echoing the movements onstage. The first time through, it’s hard not to read this as evidence that she helped design the choreography, and is thus solidly in the corner of Team Evans — another obstacle in the way of our heroes. But that initial impression actually seems less likely the more you watch.
Again, reason along with me. If Ms. Darbus is playing favorites to that degree, then Troy and Gabriella don’t stand a chance. And yet, applying basic story logic, we know they have to win…or more accurately, we know Sharpay has to lose. Given later developments, not just in this movie but in subsequent movies, I lean toward the explanation that Ms. Darbus is just so familiar with Sharpay and Ryan’s flashy but limited bag of tricks that she knows all their standard moves by heart.
Wait. I’m not sure whether that last sentence constitutes an implicit promise to review at least one of the sequels. Ken, I’ll have to check with my lawyer before I can approve publication.
The show-stopping audition concludes. Not getting her customary accolades, Sharpay stares some applause out of the crowd. Meanwhile, Kelsi is determined to have her say. As Ryan consoles some of the other students (if “to console” means “to solicit monetary support from someone with whose hopes one just waxed the floor”), she approaches Sharpay like a mouse creeping toward a lion, and begins to offer ideas. So begins one of the most important relationships in the entire franchise.
We’ve already come to know Sharpay as a commanding diva onstage. Kelsi, as you’ve guessed, prefers to lean more on persuasion. Further, their personalities make them natural opposites. Unlike Kelsi, Sharpay is a fan of glitz and pizzazz. Unlike Sharpay, Kelsi is not a stone-cold bitch.
Believe it or not, though, the two characters are actually more alike than the audience might think at first. Both are (reputedly) talented young performers, both excel at what they do, and each has a distinct artistic vision that informs what she considers to be a good performance. Their similarities mean they care about the same things, and their differences mean they’ll start at cross-purposes. So the stage is set for a natural antagonism between them.*
* (In fact, now that I’ve laid all this out, it won’t be a surprise to you when I say that by the third movie, Kelsi has basically become a main character in her own right. Sharpay is so important to this universe, and Kelsi is so clearly a good foil for her, that it could hardly have been otherwise. Since major screentime is a zero-sum game, unfortunately, Kelsi’s rise will come at Taylor’s expense.)
Until our lil’ composer evolves out of her invertebrate stage, however, any conflict between these two can only end one way — the star wins. And that’s what happens here. Sharpay demeans Kelsi (with the patronizing epithet “my sawed-off Sondheim”…a legitimately great putdown, even if it doesn’t resemble anything a real person would actually say), reminds her of their differing levels of theatrical experience, bites off her head, and then tapdances on her corpse with some parting sweetness that is as nauseating as it is obviously fake. Round one goes to Miss Evans by knockout.
However — and I know at some point, I’m going to have to let one of these small but juicy targets of opportunity slip away, because otherwise I’ll need Methuselah’s lifespan to finish — but how in the name of Aeschylus can Sharpay’s claim that she’s “been in seventeen school productions” possibly be true?
It’s January of her junior year at this point. Assuming productions are more or less evenly spread out, and further assuming that East High miseducates students starting with their freshman year, and further further assuming that Sharpay has trod the boards in every production over the last two and a half years (in one capacity or another), East High would have to put on an average of something like seven shows a year. There are performing arts high schools that barely manage that sort of schedule! (No, really. There are. And they don’t have their students write all the material, which Sharpay implies is the case at East High.)
Or is she reaching that number by counting every show she’s ever been in at any school? Because that could be hilarious. “I was Gumdrop #2 in my first-grade production of Playtime on Sugar Mountain, so you better listen to me, you little skank!”
For the people out there who think I’m nitpicking, let me just say: I get it, okay? I do. I know the point is for people to say “Woah, seventeen! Big number!” and move on. But I’m not wired that way. I notice these things, even if other people don’t. And they bother me.
Is it too much to ask for a more realistic but still impressive number, like nine or eleven? Or provide some lampshading for Sharpay’s bizarre assertion that having one’s songs performed in a fairly upscale high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico is equivalent to being lifted out of obscurity? Is it too much to ask that even the tiniest effort be made to ground this crapheap in something resembling reality?
Oh, yes, I forgot. Disney. Seventeen it is, then.
Ms. Darbus finally shuts down the auditions. A hot second later, Gabriella bolts out of hiding to request a try-out. (But, her stage fright…well, never mind. I guess it makes as much sense as anything else she’s done.) She is turned down, though. It’s too late for singles auditions, you see, and she has no partner. Troy, in an unusual moment of chivalry, reveals himself and volunteers. So Ms. Darbus lets them audition, because she had clearly just implied that pairs were still welcome. They head up on stage, where —
Whoops, scratch that. Ms. Darbus will not let them audition, because she’s a dictatorial old windbag who likes to moralize to children about how they should follow her arbitrary rules, which she had just implied could be bent. Okay, that’s not the reason she gives, but it’s the real one.
They stare after her in dismay — only to be interrupted by Klutzi Kelsi tripping over the piano bench and throwing an impromptu ticker-tape parade using her own sheet music. Troy’s chivalrous impulse hasn’t yet vanished into the ether, so he hurries on stage to help Kelsi pick up the pages of her show. In the process, he actually exhibits gentlemanly behavior. Who knew the boy had it in him?
Don’t worry. It won’t last.
Kelsi offers Troy and Gabriella the chance to hear the duet as she intended, and walks them over to the piano. She starts to play, indicating where Troy should jump in, and then ushering Gabriella into her part. Then we get to hear a slower, more thoughtful version of “What I’ve Been Looking For,” performed by two self-admitted amateur singers who have absolutely no trouble navigating the song’s harmonies by sight-reading. Nope, not letting that go either.
We also get to see some pretty fine acting out of Olesya Rulin, who deserved to be in a much better movie than this. The confusion and trepidation in her eyes when Troy starts talking to her, how shyly she comes out of her shell when complimented, “involuntarily” closing her eyes while playing in the pleasure of hearing her song brought to life the way she intended it, the slight smile on her face as she glances up at Troy and Gabriella while mouthing “what I’ve been looking for”…these are good choices, true to both the character and the moment. Whether Rulin came up with some of these touches herself, or whether Kenny Ortega directed her into all of them, does not matter to me (though some of the other performances argue against Option B). She quietly steals this scene from our two leads by making us appreciate how much her character appreciates theirs.
The mood is broken by Ms. Darbus re-entering to announce that she is giving Troy and Gabriella a callback, and assigning Kelsi to help prepare them. Kelsi excitedly begins going over rehearsal possibilities with Gabriella as Troy tries to grasp what just happened. And for once, I can say I’m with him. From the time Ms. Darbus exits the screen to the time Kelsi starts playing is a little under a minute. Even assuming we’re watching that sequence in real time, our drama teacher should still have been far enough away from the auditorium to miss the entire performance.
So Ms. Darbus must have loitered just outside the exit, waiting to see if Troy and Gabriella would sing anyway. But why would they, after they had just been told they couldn’t audition? Surely most kids would just grumble about how unfairly they had been treated, and then leave. Was Ms. Darbus hoping for something like this to happen? How could she be sure it would…or at least, why did she think she had enough grounds for hope to justify waiting a few minutes? I’m so confused.
Jump-cut to what I think is the next day, where Sharpay is taking the callback announcement with all the grace and dignity of a housecat that just had its tail slammed in a door. This still puts her one up on Ryan, who wonders if they’re being “Punk’d.” No, seriously. He apparently believes that the Q score of two high-school thespians from New Mexico might be high enough to make Ashton Kutcher want to prank them on television. (As low as Ryan’s Q score is, it’s still probably higher than his IQ score. Hey-oh!) Nor are they the only ones dismayed — a passing Chad sees their vapors, asks what the matter is, and then catches sight of Troy’s name on the callback sheet. To make matters worse for Troy, Jason and Zeke are there too. SEIZE THE INFIDEL!
You know what this means? Well, yes, I do need a life. But what I meant was that the maiden voyage of the HSM Plot is finally underway, after only thirty-eight minutes. Huzzah! How should we celebrate? Champagne? Caviar? Crème brulee?
No, not another song…
Oh, fine. It’s now lunchtime, and Sharpay is still fuming — though, since she’s crushing on Troy, her rage is directed solely at Gabriella. As she overlooks the cafeteria, she starts to notice something odd. Several kids are breaking free from their cliques and declaring that they have more than one side to them. A brainiac loves hip-hop dance. A skater dude plays the cello.
Ironically, the first to confess a hidden inner passion is Troy’s teammate Zeke, who does some baking on the side. (And I don’t mean baking like that one skater guy in the green knit cap has been baking. Yowza, the ganja must be strong in that one.) Naturally, their supposed friends rebuke them for these innocuous hobbies. And just as naturally, all of this is set to music.
Something always struck me as a little off about this song — “Stick to the Status Quo,” for those of you who are keeping score. But it wasn’t until re-watching the movie for this review that I could identify what it is. The words don’t match the actions.
Every group seems hell-bent on policing its membership to make sure they don’t engage in any verboten activities. Konformität macht frei, I suppose. (I think that’s Nazi for “stick to the status quo.”) Yet right after all these expressions of individual identity are quelled, the groups disintegrate…and the kids mingle with each other. Yes, even the kids who were just singing about how expanding your horizons was a bad idea.
Students are dancing on tabletops, meeting new people, trying new things, and so forth. One cheerleader is even puzzling over a textbook! (I’m not sure whether dumb cheerleaders or smart cheerleaders should be more offended by the implication.) Why, it’s a regular Sodom and Gomorrah. Except that the one thing no one seems to be doing, not a single person, is sticking to the status quo. Which is what they were just singing about.
Well, Sharpay isn’t having any of that. Her reflexive, stereotypical, straw-mannishly villainous values have already been stretched past their perilously low tolerance levels, and so she decides to take a solo where she warbles about how she doesn’t understand why people just won’t stay with their own kind. (Nor will she let Ryan get a lyric in edgewise. It’s her solo, dammit. Hers.)
The careful viewer will notice that before she starts, people are dancing all over the place. In fact, while the camera is on her, some background performers are still getting in touch with their inner Debbie Allen. Yet when the shot cuts to a wide angle in the midst of the Sharpay closeups, the groups are back at their respective tables, huddled together like musk oxen circling against wolves. Did no one making the movie notice the lack of continuity, or did they just not care?
In the midst of all this, Gabriella enters with Taylor. Everyone goes quiet and stares at them. Our girl Gabi is mortified when she learns it’s due to the callback. Wait…what? By my reckoning, this is the third day she has been a student at East High. Yet somehow, all the dozens of kids in the cafeteria are aware of her existence, because of something she did less than 24 hours ago that wasn’t publicly announced until earlier that day? Each member of these almost completely self-contained cliques now knows the new girl on sight? I mean, even with semi-modern technology giving the grapevine a boost, I find that difficult to believe.
Suddenly everyone starts dancing again, leaving the two brainiacs to maneuver between them. Gabriella looks dismayed, almost to the point of cracking up. I can’t blame her. If I suddenly walked into the middle of a flash mob comprised of people who hated me, I think I’d be a little frightened too. She is so panicked, in fact, that she fails to notice the puddle of milk in her path. Gabi slips, and her chili cheese fries go flying through the air…only to land right on the chest of Sharpay, who picked exactly the wrong moment to diva-strut down the stairway in search of a confrontation. Lieutenant Commander Data will provide our official reaction.
Since Sharpay’s scream is delayed a second or two, I’m guessing it’s because of the stains on her clothing, not because she was burned by the probably-lukewarm cafeteria lunch. Amusingly, Gabriella’s idea of helping is to paw frantically at Sharpay’s chest while stammering an apology. If this were any other movie, I’d say this was the moment that launched a thousand slashfics. But this is Disney. Surely no one would be so sick as to — hang on. I have a sinking feeling I’m wrong.
:::opens up search engine, enters some terms:::
Yup. I hate the Internet. Wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Taylor drags Gabriella away, and Chad manages to waylay the recently-arrived Troy from getting involved. Only then does Ms. Darbus show up to demand an explanation. This actually strikes me as plausible. My own school experiences inform me that teachers are never there to see the beginning of anything. A playground bully can knock a book out of your hands repeatedly, for five minutes, and what happens? Nothing. No teachers, no counselors, no adults at all. But you throw just one single handful of pea gravel, and your parents have to —
Sorry. My issues.
Anyway, in response to Ms. Darbus, Sharpay goes on a very impressive seventeen-second tirade. I say “very impressive” for two reasons. First, not a single word in it is true, or indeed bears any resemblance to what we’ve seen in this fictional universe. Second — even taking into account its relative brevity — its obvious falsehoods could, and should, be immediately detected by any reasonable and objective person. In fact, by telling such blatant lies to the person responsible for casting the winter musical, Sharpay places her only goal in serious jeopardy. Self-sabotaging mendacity of this magnitude deserves in-depth analysis.
- “Look at this! That Gabriella girl just dumped her lunch on me! On purpose!” I have to give Sharpay credit for some serious brass. She fibs big. When the color scheme of her outfit was altered by Gabriella’s airborne lunch, there were dozens of potential witnesses in the area, at least half a dozen of whom we saw actually watching. Only one of them (Ryan) has any reason that we know of to support Sharpay. And at least one of them (Taylor) both dislikes Sharpay and has a good reputation with the faculty. All it would take is for one person to say “That’s not true,” and the resulting investigation exposes Sharpay for the liar she is. Hell, if she is as universally loathed as this movie seems to imply, then any one of the eighty or so kids who didn’t see what happened might be tempted to lie just to get her in trouble, and that lie would probably have the same effect as the truth. Plus, purposefully dumping your lunch on somebody would be grounds for getting sent to the principal’s office. And Gabriella herself has an impeccable academic and behavioral record, which the principal knows. Even if Ms. Darbus took Sharpay at her word, he might well not. Then we’re back to the same problem — any investigation dooms Sharpay.
- “It’s all part of their plan to ruin our musical.” This one sentence is so dense with stupidity that if it collapsed, it would become a black hole of dumb. A level-headed adult might, at this point, stop Sharpay and say, “Wait a minute. Who are they? Gabriella and who else? How will this help them ruin the musical? And how do you know this, anyway? Do you have any evidence?” Instead, her Underpants Gnomes logic goes unchallenged. Of course, it’s all so obvious. Step One: dump lunch on Sharpay. Step Two: … Step Three: ruin musical!
- “And Troy and his basketball robots are obviously behind it. Why do you think he auditioned?” Compounding her easily-disproved lies, Sharpay now draws completely unrelated parties into the situation. This further exposes her to risk, since at least one of those “basketball robots” (Jason) was among the witnesses to her cuisine calamity. Moreover, she has absolutely no reason to say this. It’s not personal — she doesn’t hate Troy. (Again, if her behavior at the sign-up sheet is any indication, she seems to be crushing on him.) It’s not professional, either — Troy is no threat to her without Gabriella. So why choose to dig this particular hole for her performing career? Tell you what. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
- “After all the hard work you’ve put into this show. [pause] It just doesn’t seem right!” This is followed by a storm-off, of course. Never let the sun set on a good exit line. But if I were Ms. Darbus, this flagrant attempt at brownnosing me would be an obvious red flag.
In short, Sharpay’s outburst should have so thoroughly buttered and jammed her toast that she will never find a way back into Ms. Darbus’s good graces again when the truth finally comes to light. At this point, you would expect that reckoning process to begin, as the drama teacher tries to restore some semblance of order to the cafeteria. Instead, after a quick glance at Ryan and a huffy flip of her wrap, she storms off. Because that’s what responsible teachers do after disturbances in schools.
What? What do you mean, that’s not what they do? What do you expect? Do you want Ms. Darbus to settle everyone down and get them back to their seats? Do you want her to start asking questions of nearby students about what happened? Do you want her to drag Gabriella and Sharpay to the principal’s office in an attempt to get to the bottom of Sharpay’s allegations? Oh, you do, do you? Well, this isn’t a high school, buddy! It’s a movie high school, and there’s a predetermined plot to be executed! All that realism can just go hang.
(Where is Ms. Darbus going? Tell you what. We’ll come back to that too.)
Meanwhile, Mr. Basketball, having managed to remain totally oblivious to this whole sequence of events, innocently asks Chad what’s going on. Chad uses the opportunity to light into him for auditioning, in the process blaming him for everything that’s gone weird at East High. My God, people are now talking to each other across group barriers! Horrors! Newsflash, Twist-Out Boy — Zeke was baking before. The other kids? They were trying new things before. All Troy’s audition did was to make them feel comfortable talking about it.
Perhaps the worst thing Chad says is that Troy is responsible for the disintegration of East High’s basketball squad. We are about three-quarters of an hour into the movie, and so far, there has been precisely zero evidence that the “team is coming apart.” Zip. Zilch. Nada. Well, up until now. When one player is openly accusing the team captain of sabotaging the team by doing something totally hoops-unrelated during his free time, I admit that’s evidence of a problem. It’s just that, for seemingly the first time in this movie, the problem here isn’t being caused by Troy.
Oh, and Chad finishes by saying that they have a playoff game next week. Hold on. I thought the championship game was next week. I mean, I guess technically the championship game is the last game of the playoffs, but if the game is for some sort of title, calling it a “playoff game” seems to diminish the stakes. So I’m still very confused as to exactly what big game is coming up.
Nor is my confusion cleared up by the next scene, which opens on Coach Bolton contentedly munching a sandwich as he reads an article with the headline “Knights to Battle Wildcats for District Playoffs.” If you’re battling somebody for the playoffs, doesn’t that mean you haven’t made the playoffs yet? Like, the winner of the game wins the division, or the section or whatever, and then they’re headed to the knockout rounds after that? If the Wildcats and the Knights were playoff opponents, wouldn’t they be battling in the playoffs?
Confession time: I am naturally pedantic. It’s a tendency I have to constantly fight. And I know I’m being pedantic here, because the whole point is “big game.” But the fact that no one seems to have given a damn about consistency…well, it really bothers me. A preposition is such a simple, stupid little thing to get right. Making it worse is the caption under the adjacent picture of Troy, which reads “BOLTON’S BUZZER BEATER advances Wildcats to District Playoffs.” That makes it sound like they’re about to play in the opening round of the district tournament (again, that should still be over a month away), and not for any sort of championship.
So, to sum up, the East High Wildcats boys’ basketball team is battling for the playoffs. The playoffs they’re already in. Where, despite possibly having not faced even one opponent in said playoffs, they will now play in the championship game — or perhaps only in the opening round of the district tournament. Which is being held in mid-January, instead of sometime in February or later, presumably because all the residents of New Mexico were issued faulty calendars this year.
Everybody got that? Because there may or may not be a test or quiz later.
Now we catch up with Ms. Darbus, who is risking lawsuits aplenty by barging into the boys’ locker room, where many kids are in various stages of undress. But she won’t be deterred by such small considerations as propriety, or the rights of male minors not to have a matronly teacher intruding on their partial nudity. She’s a woman on a mission. Nothing will stop her from storming into Coach Bolton’s office and accusing him of trying to ruin her musical as revenge for their disagreement.
And now you see why Sharpay had to say what she did about Troy and his teammates. We’ve already established that it made no sense for her to accuse him of hijinks. But the script still needed it to happen, and this confrontation is the reason why. I admit I’m guessing here, but I think that Barsocchini was trying to engineer a way for Troy’s dad to learn about the audition.
So he wrote in a faculty feud, ensured we knew how irritated both teachers make each other — and then gave Sharpay a perfectly implausible and unmotivated line of dialogue, which nevertheless just happened to be the perfect thing to set off alarm bells for Ms. Darbus and send her careening toward the locker room. This is a textbook example of inorganic conflict, and thus is terrible writing.
It’s a pity, because the scene itself goes a little way toward redeeming Coach Bolton. Ms. Darbus has most of the lines, and so Alyson Reed is free to gradually make her look sillier and sillier. (My favorite moment is when Ms. Darbus says “Now, I give every student an even chance, which is a long and honorable tradition in the theater.”
I didn’t know that “giving someone an even chance” was semantically equivalent to “refusing to let someone audition, and then creeping about the auditorium exit on the off-chance they would sing anyway.” That must be how they do it on Broadway, huh? Oh, the things you learn watching these movies.) Reed’s chewing on every word she’s given allows Bart Johnson to make his character look reasonable, just by underplaying his lines and showing some restrained amusement when she finally goes too far overboard.
Anyway, the scene accomplishes its purpose…Coach Bolton now knows about the audition. Of course, Ms. Darbus leaves convinced that Sharpay was right all along, which should not have been able to happen. Still, however unmotivated the setup, I can’t hate any scene that feeds me a line like “I will not allow my Twinkle Towne musicale to be made into farce.” Yes, I snickered. Of course, Kelsi’s slow-paced song that we heard earlier doesn’t fit with the tone set by that title. But hey, at least I know what her show is misnamed. I still don’t know what’s going on with the playoffs.
Shut up, Mora.
Unfortunately, with the conclusion of that scene, we have now hit the doldrums of the movie. The next logical step in the story structure is for Troy and Gabriella to start preparing for callbacks, and for those preparations to have consequences. But while the movie will reach that point eventually, it’s going to take the long way, just to make absolutely sure that even the brain-damaged are with us.
First, we get a scene between Gabriella and Taylor that accomplishes no purpose, except to inform us that Sharpay is ambitious and unforgiving (which her scenes at the auditions already showed us) and to give us a hint that Taylor doesn’t really understand what Gabriella wants (which we already saw when Gabriella was asking about Troy). After that, we witness Sharpay and Zeke (!) talking at Sharpay’s pink locker (!!!) where Zeke tries to make an advance (?!) and is shot down hard. The only thing we learn here is that whatever disease Jason has, it’s contagious:
SHARPAY: “I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.”
ZEKE: “Well, wouldn’t that be awfully uncomfortable?”
Ah, yes. No doubt this exchange was inspired by the one between Gloucester and Cornwall in King Lear. Act III, Scene vii. From the Shakespeare, you know.
Oh, but wait, there’s more! Because we also get a scene between Gabriella and Troy on the roof of the school, where they decide to do the callbacks. This is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the most important scene in the movie. Why? (Oh, I’m so glad you asked.) Because nowhere else can you see the larger script problems in such sharp relief. Almost every problem here has already cropped up multiple times, but I often couldn’t mention it — usually there are easier targets available that I can only hit at that moment. Here, though, we’re in an isolated setting with two characters who aren’t talking about plot points, so the bigger problems are easier to see…and harder to ignore.
You don’t mind if I take a few paragraphs to discuss them, do you? No? Thank you so much. Because you’ve been so kind, I won’t even mock the awkward dialogue on display. No, you in the back, sit down. I don’t care if you have to go to the bathroom. We’re not that far away from the end of Act Two. You can hold it that long.
- Lack of audience trust. Basically all of the important content in this scene has either been mentioned in dialogue, or demonstrated through action, at least once earlier in the film. You doubt me? Well, here are the six major pieces of character information we “learn” here:
- Troy is feeling pressure because of the big game coming up.
- Troy is feeling even more pressure because of Coach Dad.
- Troy feels like his friends, and father, don’t know who he really is.
- Sometimes Troy just wants to let go of the pressure and be a normal kid.
- Gabriella was the “freaky math girl” before, and wants to leave that behind.
- Troy and Gabriella loved singing with each other.
No, really. That’s pretty much the whole scene. Just like the two scenes before it, we learn nothing even remotely important to our future plot that we didn’t already know. But since the people who made this movie don’t trust their audience, this scene is designed for our two leads to verbalize their motivations outright. AGAIN.
- Wimpy main character. Look at that list above. Can you discern the major topic of discussion? I’ll save you the trouble — it’s Troy’s feelings. And you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care because Troy isn’t an interesting character, and anyone watching this movie who is not distracted by Zac Efron’s undeniable prettiness can see that. Troy hasn’t once set a goal for himself. Troy hasn’t once tried to do anything about his situation. He has taken the path of least resistance every time. And now, here he is, sitting on a rooftop whining about all the pressure he’s under, as if he’s the only person in the world who’s ever had a cross to bear. Well, Troy, from where I’m sitting, you’re a talented basketball player and a popular guy who has a girl that looks like Vanessa Hudgens totally crushing on you. Your life is friggin’ GOLDEN, man. If something about your impossibly blessed existence is bothering you, change it. Otherwise, man up, grow a pair, and get over yourself.
- Lack of appropriate scene resolution. Those of you who are still awake probably noticed that I said this was the scene where Troy and Gabriella decide to do the callbacks. You may be wondering what that has to do with all the feelings stuff I’ve been talking about. Well, the answer is: One has nothing to do with the other. Gabriella joins Troy on the roof. They talk, mostly about Troy’s feelings. And then at the end, they just decide to do the callbacks — as if that had been the goal of the scene all along. When did they weigh the pros and cons? When did they come up with a plan of action? No, it’s just “Woe is me, woe is me, oh, woe is me…so, callbacks, huh? Yeah!” This is especially egregious because of how passive our two leads have proven to be. They have largely been acted upon rather than taken charge: being pushed on stage at the ski resort, passing on several opportunities to audition, et cetera. Here, finally, they have a real chance to seize the initiative in a meaningful way, by discussing what they want and hashing out a strategy to achieve it. Yet they waste the opportunity. Or rather, Peter Barsocchini wastes it for them.
- The non-entity that is Gabriella Montez. Let me correct something I wrote just a minute ago. I said “Troy and Gabriella decide” — but that’s not strictly true. In a better-written script, this would be a scene between two main characters, where they talked through a problem and agreed on a decision. But you don’t even have to look closely to notice there’s only one character here. The focus is on Troy…his thoughts and, more importantly, his feelings. Gabriella exists only to act as sounding board and sympathetic ear. Almost every one of her thoughts and feelings is directed back onto Troy. You think I’m exaggerating? Six of Troy’s eleven lines of dialogue in this scene are about himself, and only three of them could be reasonably construed as being about Gabriella even in part. (And one of those is kind of an insult.) But when Gabriella speaks, Troy is the total or partial focus of nine of her twelve lines. Only one of her lines is totally about her, and it’s completely self-deprecating. Which is ironic, since there isn’t a self there to deprecate.
Look, I don’t have a problem with one character being the focus of the plot. Some scripts only fully flesh out one lead, and the main character of the opposite sex functions solely as the love interest. That’s a perfectly viable way to tell a story. But if Troy and Gabriella really are supposed to be Romeo and Juliet: Albuquerque Edition — or even Danny and Sandy Junior, for that matter — then they should both be true leads. Juliet and Sandy both had thoughts and plans of their own. And Romeo and Danny were obsessed with their women almost as much as Troy loves himself. What we have here is not two star-crossed lovers, but rather Narcissus and his spring.
One last thing before I move on. I’ve been saving this particular talking point for an opportune moment, and I don’t think I’ll get a better one. Do you know how some of the characters in High School Musical got their names? Peter Barsocchini christened them after his daughter Gabriella and other people in his life. Some people, reflecting on that tidbit of information, might pity the poor girl who was unfortunate enough to be named Sharpay. Me? That was only the second thing I thought. (A good thing, too. Per the link above, turns out Barsocchini just hates Shar-Peis.)
The first was to wonder why, if there is only one central character, it isn’t Gabriella. Troy resides at the center of this particular solar system; Gabi is only the largest of the planets in his orbit. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t know how I would feel if my dad wrote a movie and the character named after me was, not the lead, but the person who makes the lead look good. But I bet my feelings would be mixed at best.
(EDIT: So, I looked deeper into the story, and it turns out that Barsocchini drew a lot of inspiration for the movie from his own young life. In a sense, Troy is an idealized version of his teenaged self, and Coach Bolton represents his tragically deceased father. That makes sense, and I certainly understand the impulse to live out fantasies through fiction. Although I now have some questions about how to read the fact that his stand-in’s love interest is named after his real-life daughter…)
So finally, we reach the point — fifty minutes into a ninety-eight minute movie! — where our two protagonists both a) have a goal, and b) have committed to taking steps to achieve it. Let me say that a different way. The real story has just started, and our running time is half over.
Of course, despite having shown nearly every excruciating detail of their lives up until now, the movie suddenly decides that time is of the essence. We have to get moving, dangflabbit! Giddyup! So the rehearsal scenes with Troy, Gabriella, and Kelsi are stitched into a montage. For good measure, the movie also decides to throw a little plot into the mix, as the Evans siblings both hear their competition…but are unable to determine whom they’ve heard. First, Ryan is walking up what I’m guessing is a back staircase, right by the room Troy has locked himself inside to practice in peace. Then, Gabriella almost gets caught by Sharpay in a bathroom.*
What I don’t understand is how Sharpay and Ryan can’t figure out who was singing. You were at rehearsals, weren’t you? You heard all the other singers, most of whom were embarrassingly bad. And now you come across new voices, good ones, ones you’ve never heard before — on the eve of a callback against two people whom you have never heard sing, but who were talented enough to force you into an unprecedented second round of auditions. My goodness gracious, to whom could those mysterious voices possibly belong?![*The sequence with the two ladies is particularly wretched. For starters, despite not being able to hear Sharpay coming into the restroom, Gabriella reacts with fear and hides. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of a door handle inserted onto the soundtrack, but when we pan over to see the door, it seems to have already been open — and Sharpay walks through it noiselessly. If not for the helpful signal from the foley people, our poor Gabi should have been caught in mid-note.
Next, Sharpay executes a wimpy little karate kick on one of the stall doors…but when no one is revealed, doesn’t even bother to check the rest of the stalls, all of which seem to be unlocked, and any one of which could harbor the mystery singer. Finally, after primping in front of one of the sink mirrors [because of course], Sharpay strides out, leaving Gabriella to peer nervously around a corner and breathe a sigh of relief. The problem here is that if you pay attention to the restroom’s geography, Gabi is standing right next to the line of sinks, and so should be in full view of an exiting Sharpay.]
Our montage is interrupted by a cut to the basketball squad running a passing drill — with Troy nowhere to be seen. This makes Coach Dad very unhappy. Where is the Great White Hope of East High? Why, he’s painting props in the theater, while Gabriella is a few feet away working on costumes. And so is Taylor, for some reason. (Why would Taylor be there? She’s not part of the drama club. Why couldn’t this be a nameless extra?) Ms. Darbus, walking past, spies our young couple moving in rhythm with each other. See, because they’re soulmates. They’re syncing up to the same beat. Hey, don’t look at me like that. I just didn’t want you to miss the subtlety.
Actually, for this movie, that does count as subtle. I withdraw the mockery.
Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on you. It’s just that we have so much worse to come.
Cut to later, where we see Troy dashing into the gym in full uniform, ready to join practice. Except practice is over for the day! Ruh-roh, Shaggy! As the squad files past without an acknowledgement (save for Chad, who slams a ball into his tardy teammate’s gut), Troy turns to his dad. Does he apologize? Does he make an excuse for blowing off a mandatory team event?
No, he just says that he’s going to stay late and work on his own. Coach Bolton issues a snide little put-down about how “since you missed practice, I think your team deserves a little — effort from you today.” Yes, it’s passive-aggressive, but the coach is actually being quite restrained under the circumstances. The team captain, his own son, missing a full practice the week before a very important playoff-championship-district game? I’d have jumped down the kid’s throat and made him run laps.
Troy starts shooting free throws. Unfortunately, Gabriella drops in to chat, so Troy decides to talk with her instead of working. Then she steals the ball from him, and starts playing keepaway, which he takes as an excuse to pick her up and spin her right round. It’s all a bit nauseating.
Incidentally, you may have noticed that everyone keeps saying Troy is a good guy. I actually think he’s a budding jackass, and this scene is one of the reasons why. He tells Gabriella that if he gets kicked off the team for missing practice, she’s responsible. Yes, he basically takes it back with a smile a minute later in the face of her sputtered denial, but does anyone else get the sense that he is joking-not-joking?
I mean, Troy can’t possibly believe he’s going to be booted. He’s got a huge in with the coach, after all. But he seems to be covering for his anger at his own lack of responsibility by lashing out at someone he knows will forgive him. That kind of “joke” isn’t the mark of a good guy. Rather, it’s indicative of a petulant, spiteful coward. Our hero, folks.
We are saved from further cuteness when Coach Bolton arrives to get both Troy and this review back on track. And he comes out swinging. The brusque manner in which he treats Gabriella causes her to remove herself hastily from the gym, and earns him a look from Troy that I would only give to someone who had just committed a social faux-pas on the level of telling a eunuch that “my last girlfriend really cut my balls off.” So now is the time for the long-awaited, and necessary, showdown between father and son. Unfortunately, it’s also the low point of the movie.
Remember, Coach Bolton has the moral high ground here. As a member of a team, Troy has a responsibility to his teammates. As the captain, he has the additional responsibility of leading by example. He just very publicly failed in both areas. Worse yet, his misbehavior comes with a big game on the horizon, when his father has been preaching that everyone needs to be focused — and what can his father expect from the rest of the team, when his own son proves unable or unwilling to listen? That is all Coach Bolton needs to say. There is no possible response Troy can make to that line of argument except “I’m sorry, and I promise to do better.”
But since this is a Disney kids’ movie, Troy needs to be right and his dad needs to be wrong. Children Always Know Best, you see. Yet how, with the deck stacked against Troy so heavily, can he win? This transcript, complete with chess annotation, may give you the answer:
TROY: “Dad, detention was my fault, not hers.”
COACH B: “You haven’t missed practice in three years. That girl shows up…”
TROY: “That girl is named Gabriella. She’s very nice.” (?)
COACH B: “Well, helping you miss practice doesn’t make her very nice. Not in my book. Or your team’s.” (?)
TROY: “Dad, she’s not a problem! She’s just a girl!” (??)
COACH B: “But you’re not just a guy, Troy! You’re the team leader. What you do affects not only this team, but the entire school. And without you completely focused, we’re not gonna win next week. Championship games, they don’t come along all the time. They’re something special.” (?!)
TROY: “Yeah, well — a lot of things are special, Dad.” (!?)
COACH B: “But you’re a playmaker…not a singer, right?” (??)
TROY: “Did you ever think maybe I could be both?!”
COACH B: “…” (++)
Let’s recap the match. Coach Bolton’s opening move is as expected, though perhaps he should have put a little less emphasis on Gabriella. Still, it’s all to the good, because it distracts Troy into what we’ll call the Girlfriend Gambit, which only solidifies Coach Bolton’s already-strong position. The proper move from here is for him to admit that Gabriella seems nice, but her pleasantness is not the issue — the issue is that Troy is allowing her to distract him from the squad.
Instead, the coach counters with a bad move, by keeping the focus on Gabriella. Troy responds with a worse one by dismissing the importance of his beleaguered queen. (“She’s just a girl”…how all real men think of their wimmin-folk.) But this lousy continuation of play prompts a very dubious response, as Coach Bolton focuses not on Troy’s responsibilities, but on the consequences should he continue to fail them.
Despite the strong opening element pointing out Troy’s position as team leader, this move leaves the coach wide open to the classic But That Won’t Happen Counter. This favorite situational defense of teenagers the world over usually results in a stalemate.
Intriguingly, Troy rejects that well-defined ploy for a more interesting move that is very dangerous to both players, as he merely advances a banal truth. Coach Bolton is now in trouble. Most obvious lines of play open from this position will require him to launch a major exchange with his son. Particularly deadly would be a debate over which is more special, Gabriella or the championship game. (You know what, fine. They keep calling it the championship game in dialogue, so we’ll just go with that. Unless they do something to confuse the issue again. Wink.)
Yet there is still a conservative line of play that negates all the blunders Coach Bolton has made — to say that of course many things are special, and ask which one Troy thinks should be his priority. Whichever choice Troy makes, or even if he refuses to make a choice, he opens himself up to multiple devastating attacks, and a skilled player could end the game within moments.
Happily for Troy, Coach Bolton is not a skilled player. In fact, he gives away the whole game on the next move, committing the incredible blunder of trying to define his son. Troy responds in the obvious way, and the game is over. The stronger position winds up checkmated.
Okay. Well, that metaphor got out of hand, huh?
Coach Bolton just stands there as Troy, who has shot all of two free throws to make up for the entire practice he missed, storms out of the gym. On his way out, he walks right by half a dozen of his teammates, huddled against the door and the nearby wall. (Why?) Unbelievably, he somehow manages not to see any of them. Even more unbelievably, that is the least stupid thing to happen in the last three minutes of screentime. Oh, High School Musical. That is quite a feat.
*A hopefully droll Shakespeare quote, not meaning in the slightest to label this dissertation as ‘tedious.’ I could have switched out the word, but…it’s the Bard, man. I think Mr. Rational will get it (hopefully).