High School Musical A GUEST DISSERTATION (Part 1)

2006 – Disney Channel, Salty Pictures, First Street Films
Directed by Kenny Ortega
Written by Peter Barsocchini

NOTE: Comments are closed for the first four parts of this piece, just to keep them together. Please jump ahead to Part 5 if you wish to comment. Thanks!


I suppose that at some point, I will have to answer the inevitable question.  Why?  Why would a reasonably sane adult man spend his free time writing a lengthy critique of a made-for-TV musical aimed at middle-school girls?

That question would be difficult enough to answer by itself.  But I also have to deal with all the questions behind the question, the ones that are being asked in a snotty and judgmental tone.  Aren’t there more important things in the world to worry about?  Don’t I have anything better to do?  Didn’t I watch, and love, a bunch of crap TV as a kid?  Couldn’t I just accept that this movie’s devoted fans have different tastes from mine and leave them in peace?

I promise to answer all of those questions at some future point.  For now, though, it’s time to start talking about High School Musical.  And there’s no better place to begin than with its purported origin as another in a long series of pop-culture parasites, forced to leech their pathetic half-lives from the strength and beauty of a great work of English literature — Romeo and Juliet.

No, I’m not kidding.  Peter Barsocchini, the writer of High School Musical, has said that he took his inspiration from the Bard’s greatest romantic tragedy.  In an interview with Debra Eckerling of storylink.com, he explains: “Barry [Borden] and Bill [Rosenbush, the executive producers] gave me the challenge of developing a pitch that would be a sort of Romeo and Juliet set in high school, wherein instead of rival families there would be rival cliques.”

Perhaps it’s not sporting of me to bring up a remark like that solely to mock it.  Then again, no one has ever accused me of being a good sport.  What Barsocchini says here is mock-worthy for two reasons.  First, if what he is saying is true, then he should have known better than to try.  Imagine someone trying to pitch a movie that is a sort of Gone with the Wind but not set in the American South, or kind of like The Godfather but without the Mafia.  Ridiculous, right?

Well, the war between feuding families is what makes Romeo and Juliet possible; without the war, there is no story.  No one would care about the title teens shacking up if Daddy Montague and Daddy Capulet hadn’t spent years fomenting civil unrest on the streets of Verona.

Their conflict is rooted so deeply in the Shakespearean text that even its greatest modern adaptation, West Side Story, compensated for dispensing with actual families by making the bonds between the members of its gangs so tight that only death could sever them.  As Riff sings, “When you’re a Jet, let ‘em do what they can / You’ve got brothers around, you’re a family man.”  That dynamic cannot be easily replicated by teens in a modern American high school.

Second, it should be obvious to anyone with a knowledge of pop culture that Barsocchini is either a liar, or else inexcusably ignorant of famous musicals.  Let’s review the major elements of High School Musical.  High school.  Cliques.  Pretty young people.  Fast, fun music.  Energetic dances.  Plus, nobody dies at the end, more’s the pity.  Remind you of anything?

Yes, what we’re dealing with here is a tween-friendly Grease.

I have to confess something at this juncture.  I don’t really like Grease.  I consider most of its critiques of 1950’s culture to be either slanderous or silly, and I laugh (from the heights of my advantageous historical perspective) at its equally antiquated 70’s attitude.  As far as I’m concerned, Grease is overhyped and overappreciated.  There are at least twenty movie musicals I can name off the top of my head that I would sooner watch.  One is Sextette.  No, really.  I mean it.

Still, I have seen Grease enough times to know there’s a reasonable comparison to be drawn here.  At the risk of bringing down the righteous wrath of Grease fans, it has a lot in common with High School Musical even if you discount the obvious parallels between the stories*, or the questionably-substantiated rumors that High School Musical actually began life as a proposal for Grease 3.

[*Those story parallels, by the way, are legion:  We have two teens from different places who meet and fall in love.  Then one of them moves into the other one’s high school.  But they can’t be together because their friends and their reputations keep getting in the way.  So they mope around and sing about their problems.  Finally everyone gets together, and there’s a happy ending.  Just like Romeo and Juliet, right?  You might even say they’re perfect Reflections.  Heh heh.]

For starters, both Grease and High School Musical have the same basic message — break free, young people, and live!  The first shows its characters breaking free from the 1950’s “ideal mold” to be who they are.  The second shows its characters breaking free from the modern high school’s social strata to be all that they can be.  Some people might see a significant difference there, but I think that’s splitting a very fine hair.  They’re two forms of rebellion, two sides of the same coin.

There are two other points of comparison I’d like to touch on briefly:  both movies are defined by their generations, and both were roaring successes with their target audiences.  Keep that firmly in mind as I talk about both movies, and you’ll see that the apparent contrast between them is actually a function of the contrasting eras in which they were made.

The storyline of Grease may have been set in the 1950’s, but the film itself was a 70’s film, in every sense of the phrase.  It oozed cynicism and countercultural ideals from every pore while ruthlessly satirizing everybody and everything — even its nominal heroes.  Teen audiences were drawn to its celebration of youth and sex and freedom, and its evocative score enticed thirty-somethings craving the soundtrack of their youth.

No wonder that it scored big at the box office, taking the highest domestic gross of any movie in 1978.  John Travolta, already a household name because of Welcome Back Kotter and his Oscar-nominated turn in Saturday Night Fever, would hit the peak of his popularity and box-office appeal.  And of course, Grease continues to live on, through a (failed) sequel, numerous revival screenings, and most recently a live adaptation for television.

High School Musical has an antithetical tone, and a very different animating philosophy.  It’s awash in vague early-21st century pablum:  if you can dream it, you can do it; your friends aren’t truly your friends unless they accept you for who you are; everyone can be a winner if we work as a team; and so forth.  But it has been just as successful, in its own way, as its spiritual predecessor.

Its premiere garnered the second-highest rating for any Disney Channel Original Movie to that date, behind only the Hilary Duff vehicle Cadet Kelly.  It has spawned one TV-movie sequel, one theatrical sequel, and one straight-to-DVD spinoff to date, with a “Next Generation” sequel in the works.  Most importantly for the House of Mouse, this merchandising goose laid a lot of golden eggs.  Kids bought, not only the movies and albums, but backpacks and clothes and school supplies and sundry other things that had pictures of the fresh-faced cast slathered on them.  And it’s officially nostalgia bait; the main cast (mostly) got their very own ten-year reunion special (sort of) this January.

So no, High School Musical is not today’s Romeo and Juliet.  It’s today’s Grease.  And that’s a tragic commentary on today, as much as Grease is a tragic commentary on the 70’s.  (Uh-oh, another point of comparison.)  My point is that they served the same function for the same audience.  Granted, they certainly don’t have the same reputation.  Then again, Grease is a critically-acclaimed film with a thirty-year headstart on cultural penetration, so to say that it’s better-regarded is not exactly fair.

There are some real differences between the two movies as well.  But I want to talk about just one right now — the music.  I know this sounds obvious, but music defines the musical.  It irreducibly captures tone, meaning, style, and essence.  There’s no denying that when you listen to Grease and High School Musical, they don’t sound the same.  And that’s not just because Disney has spent decades perfecting the art of writing songs that are the sonic equivalent of crack.

Grease is steeped in rock and roll.  No musical genre in history has been more youth-created or youth-driven, and no Top-40 compositions ever spoke so directly to the feelings of a generation.  High School Musical has a variety of musical influences informing its songs, but all the numbers are distinctly pop.  Pop music (certainly modern pop) is what rock and roll becomes after it’s been fed through synthesizers and stripped of any meaning or feeling.  Rock and roll was created in part to show The Man that some things can’t be bought; pop is The Man buying them anyway, and turning them to his own purposes.  What once fought the Establishment, now is the Establishment.

So, I have two theories.  Mind you, I can’t prove these, but I believe they’re true.  The first:  High School Musical was consciously written by Peter Barsocchini to be a sanitized version of Grease.  That would explain not only the similarities between the elements and the storylines, but many of the major differences as well.

Instead of a bad-boy greaser, the male lead is a good-guy jock — in fact, he basically starts as what a love-motivated Danny Zuko tried to become.  Our female lead is just as squeaky-clean as Sandy, but she doesn’t have to sex herself up to get her man’s attention.  And instead of the villain being a bitchy slut who hangs out with yes-girls, what we have here is a bitchy flirt whose brother is a yes-girl.

Barsocchini can say what he likes, but the evidence is clear.  I would be willing to wager some serious coin that High School Musical is based on Romeo and Juliet in roughly the same way that a Xerox of a Xerox is a copy of the original document.

That’s not quite a perfect analogy, though.  A Xerox of a Xerox has lost information, but the print is still legible enough.  By contrast, a staggering amount of quality was lost in the transition from Grease to High School Musical.  This brings me to my second theory, which is an attempt to explain why the former movie is several orders of magnitude greater than the latter as a work of art.   I believe Peter Barsocchini, either on his own or at the behest of Disney executives, made changes to the plot without compensating fully for losing key elements of Grease.  (Also, if you substitute “Kenny Ortega” for Barsocchini and “style” for plot, you have a sentence that seems equally true.)

There’s no denying that Grease works in a way that High School Musical never can.  Even in its watered-down movie form, Grease wants to be itself and it has some things that it needs to say.  (The original stage musical is far fiercer and far less compromised as a work of art — and, I would argue, has been almost completely supplanted by its filmic descendant for that exact reason.)  High School Musical doesn’t want to be itself…it wants to be Grease, only family-friendly.  And it doesn’t have things it needs to say, so much as it has slogans that it was programmed to parrot.

Those slogans invoke different attitudes, though — and they are not interchangeable with the ones in Grease.  Even changing minor details like the location for a plot point, or adding a supporting character, can significantly alter the way the story functions.  If you want to preserve the quality of the original work in your adaptation, you have to counterbalance any changes to plot and tone by figuring out ways to create the same meanings and feelings.  Kenny Ortega and Peter Barsocchini either could not do that, or chose not to.  As a result, High School Musical is a pile of crap.

I’m afraid there’s no putting off this nasty business any longer.  Now I’ll have to review this movie just to back up that statement.  No better place to start, I think, than with the people who will be torturing us for the next ninety-eight minutes.  So let’s look at our —


Zac Efron as TROY BOLTON, East High’s resident basketball superstar (team captain, no less) who is suddenly discovering a latent passion for the performing arts.  His head’s in the game, but his heart’s in the song.

Vanessa Anne Hudgens as GABRIELLA MONTEZ, an academic whiz kid and transfer student who came to Rydell High from Aust — oh, pardon me — who came to East High from San Diego.  She doesn’t want to be the school’s freaky genius girl again.

Ashley Tisdale as SHARPAY EVANS, co-president of East High’s Drama Club and star of seventeen school productions, who is unnerved by the sudden interest of interlopers in “her” newest show.  Something is really, really wrong, and she’s gotta get things back where they belong.

Lucas Grabeel as RYAN EVANS, Sharpay’s twin brother, the other Drama Club co-president, and mostly a particularly dim appendage to his sister.  At the moment, he’s a necessary part of her career, but if Sharpay could figure out a way to play Romeo and Juliet, even he would be aced out of a job.

Alyson Reed as MS. DARBUS, the melodramatic drama teacher who is nominally in charge of the upcoming winter musicale Twinkle Towne.  She gives every auditioning student an even chance (snicker), and she has zero tolerance for cell phones in class.

Corbin Bleu as CHAD DANFORTH, the Pippen to Troy’s Jordan, and an ardent defender of East High’s social status quo.  He thinks it’s better by far to leave things as they are.

Monique Coleman as TAYLOR McKESSIE, Chem Club president and leader of East High’s scholastic decathlon team.  Her side of evolution, the side of education and accomplishment, is the future of civilization.  According to her.

Bart Johnson as COACH JACK BOLTON, Troy’s father, former East High basketball star, and now head coach of the Wildcats.  He may talk about championships — a lot — but what he really wants is to see his son having the time of his life playing the game they both love.

Olesya Rulin as KELSI NIELSEN, the composer of Twinkle Towne who is watching in horror as Sharpay and Ryan take over her show.  She was so lonely before she finally found (in Troy and Gabriella) what she’s been looking for.

Chris Warren Jr. as ZEKE BAYLOR, another basketball player, inspired by Troy’s activities to take his passion for baking public.  Someday, he hopes to make the perfect crème brulee.

Ryne Sanborn as JASON CROSS, yet another basketball player, whose driving passions seem to be asking teachers about their holidays and removing hats from awkward yet adorable young women.  Seriously, why is this guy even here?!

KayCee Stroh as MARTHA COX, the overweight nerd with a secret…hip-hop is her passion.  She loves to pop and lock and jam and break.  I mention her here, even though she’s not in the opening credits, because she’s so much more of an entity than Jason that to leave her out would be unfair.


We open at a ski resort on New Year’s Eve as our title fades into view.  And now I have to stop for my first criticism.  Okay, so maybe it’s a picky place to start, but really?  High School Musical?  Brought to you by the good folks at Generico Amalgamated!  Make sure to tune in next month for our new feature, Junior High Noir!  And we’re now casting for Kindergarten Sex Comedy!  There had to be a better name floated around at some point.  But I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh.  I mean, after all, this is a made-for-TV kiddie flick.  It’s not like they’re doing Shakespeare.  Right, Peter?

I suppose I understand why the Powers That Be went with High School Musical — that is, why they couldn’t think of anything they liked better, and just carried over the working title.  (No, really.  That’s what happened.)  And it probably had nothing to do with the fact that the only appropriate name for a sanitized version of Grease would be the already-taken Hairspray.  Thank goodness, by the way.  If that were the explanation, I might die of laughter.

Here’s my explanation.  Most musicals have a title song.  One glance at the list of the track names, though, should tell you that our pickings here are slimmer than Selena Gomez.  “Stick to the Status Quo?”  “What I’ve Been Looking For?”  Not exactly good choices.  Still, they did have at least one option.  One of the last songs is called “Breaking Free.”

And the movie’s heroes are trying to…well, break free from their socially-prescribed high school roles and define themselves.   It’s certainly not a deathless handle for the ages, I grant you.  But the Disney Channel has put out other movies like Gotta Kick It Up!, and Jump In!, and Read It and Weep.  Doesn’t Breaking Free sound like it would fit in that lineup just fine?

Okay.  Ten seconds of movie, three paragraphs of review.  Let’s continue, or we’ll never be done.

Inside the lodge, a girl named Gabriella sits alone, curled up with a book.  Her mother takes the book away, and won’t give it back until she has consented to socialize at the resort’s New Year’s Eve party.  Go, Mom!  Way to send the message that book learnin’ isn’t nearly as important as hangin’ out with the other kids!

Unbeknownst to comely young Gabi, a hunky teen by the name of Troy Bolton will also be attending the party before his family leaves the next day.  (Well, “hunky” in the shaggy-haired, baby-faced manner of the early aughts, anyway.  We’re not talking James Dean here, ladies.)  Troy’s mother interrupts a workout between him and his father, who is also Troy’s basketball coach, to steal her husband for a grownups’ night out.

Her son is dispatched to the kids’ party.  (“Kids?”  “Young adults.”)  Nothing else really happens in the scene, though I remain amused by someone’s inability to understand that “downtown,” in basketball, means a shot taken just a little bit farther away from the basket than six feet.  Perhaps Coach Bolton doesn’t know his stuff after all.  Or perhaps Troy plays in a very special league, for very special players.

Both our protagonists arrive at the party.  We hear some synth-pop in the background.  Troy stands around trying to look vaguely cool.  Meanwhile, Gabriella — still packing her book — finds a discreet chair and begins reading again.  Unfortunately for them, the music we heard earlier was karaoke.  And they’re both located very close to the stage.  Meet-cute in five…four…three…two…

Sure enough, both of them get spotlit and pushed onstage by fellow partygoers.  Troy tries to excuse himself casually, insisting that he can’t sing.  Gabriella, looking confused, offers no resistance.  They wind up standing next to each other very uncomfortably as the emcee says offhandedly to Troy, “Someday, you guys might thank me for this.  Or not.”  I won’t, you nameless bastard.  I won’t.

The song in question is a bland duet called “Something New,” and it’s apparently famous enough in this universe that both teens would be expected to know the melody.  Troy gamely starts in on the first verse, glancing over at Gabriella, who is clearly wishing she could melt into the floor.  When he gets no response, not even an indication that she’ll try to sing, he turns around and starts to walk off.  Nice work, Bolton.  Leave a petrified girl by herself in front of a crowd.  What a gentleman.

But Gabriella visibly screws up her courage and starts to sing, stopping Troy dead in his tracks.  (BS.  Anyone as terrified as she was would dash offstage faster than a rabbit on speed.)  He jumps back to the microphone and —

Wait.  Are they harmonizing?  You cannot possibly tell me that these two kids, later established to be amateur singers at best, actually know the harmonies to this song!

The lack of logic here is a shame, because the rest of this scene is kind of cute.  The crowd around the stage is fully into the performance by the end of the first chorus.  And I can’t blame them, I guess; this is top-notch karaoke.  Troy, a natural performer, clearly decides “what the hell,” takes off his jacket (to girl-screams) and begins to showboat a little.  Gabriella warms up to the fun too, and starts grooving around the microphone.  She warms up so much, in fact, that even though her lips stop moving after Troy almost backs her offstage, you can still hear her singing.

Carping on that too much is an act of curmudgeonry of which even I am not capable, though.  The simple fact is that narrative film is about using images — and these days, sound — to communicate not only a story, but ideas and emotions.  And this little scene works on several levels.  Vanessa Hudgens has a gorgeous voice, and Zac Efron ain’t half bad either.  (What you can hear of him, anyway.  His voice is being electronically blended with Drew Seeley’s.)

Plus, they really do have chemistry together.  Watch Troy as he uses the song to get in some flirting with his singing partner.  Efron sells the whole thing beautifully.  Hudgens, meanwhile, allows her character to open up gradually while playing “sweet” and “shy” to their absolute limits.  Judge for yourself.  For my money, it’s the best scene in the movie.

They finish the song, and meet amidst enthusiastic applause.  Ducking outside for some fresh air amidst the snowfall, they reveal their amateur singing credentials (church choir for her, shower crooning for him) and banter shyly.  The nervous conversation is mercifully interrupted by the countdown to midnight.  Both of them really want to kiss, but they don’t.  Dude!  Dudette!  Just go for it already!  In real life, this would be the thing that you looked back on and regretted.  Before the moment can come to full bloom, though, Gabriella sprays some weed killer on it by announcing that she should go find her mom.  Troy says he’ll call her tomorrow.  (Hey, Troy, weren’t you leaving tomorrow?)  They exchange numbers and snap pictures with their cellphones, and then she slips away as he starts talking about what a great time he had.  Fade out.

You know, that actually wasn’t so bad.  This is a decent short film about two teens who meet on vacation, have a nice moment, and then go their separate ways.  Why does it get so much hate?

Oh…we still have another hour and a half to go?

Well.  Shit.

Fade in to East High School, Albuquerque, New Mexico, one week later.  And that is a frickin’ huge building.  I’ve driven through lots of towns that could fit inside with room to spare.  Kids are milling around in front of the school, still in the Christmas vacation mood.  Troy is mobbed as he steps off the bus.  His best friend Chad, who seems to have been put in this movie specifically to make me depressed for humanity’s future, starts talking about winning “the championship” in two weeks.

I’m sure I’m thinking too hard about this, but exactly what championship is Chad talking about?  Two weeks from a week after New Year’s — allowing for some imprecision — would be sometime in late January.  That’s way too early for the state tournament in New Mexico, which (like most states) holds its prep basketball championships in March.  And I think it’s probably too early for the district championships, since those would most likely be in late February.

Could Chad be this jazzed about winning some sort of city title?  Apparently there is such a thing, but again the timing seems to be wrong…that tournament would almost have concluded.  I spent about a half-hour browsing for this information, by the way.  Perhaps I kept looking for so long because Chad channeling Buzz Lightyear bummed me out.  This movie has no right to invoke Toy Story.  No.  Right.

Inside the halls of East High, we meet yet more specimens of modern American teenhood, conveniently divided into cliques for our easier digestion.  A couple of Nordics hooked up to their cellphones, who will later be revealed to be Sharpay and Ryan, stride through the halls.  (Well, Sharpay is more flouncing than striding.)  There’s a black girl, who we will soon come to know as Taylor, hanging up posters with some student club.  Troy and his basketball buddies are there as well, of course.  And all the groups get to display their various levels of contempt for each other.  Ah, yes.  Truly, the clique tensions in the halls of East High rival the family tensions of Verona.

Oh, but look who else is here — it’s Gabriella, arriving for her first day of school as a new student!  How totally unexpected!  What a shocking twist!

You know, I can’t even fake it.

The principal seems excited to have her in school, and her mother reassures the audience that Gabriella will be staying at East High until graduation, so there could definitely be some sequels if we all thought she was adorable enough.  For her part, Gabriella seems less than excited to be changing schools again.  I wonder how she’d feel if she knew that the hottie she sang with on New Year’s Eve was in the building?

Let’s be realistic, though.  We have been introduced to East High as this gigantic cliquish place, and whip-smart Gabi is most likely to be welcomed by Taylor’s “genius girl”-type crowd.  Granted, Troy is the big basketball star, so she’ll have to realize he’s there eventually.  But the chances of that happening on the first day are pretty low.

So naturally, she runs into him as soon as she walks into homeroom.  That means we get a visual and verbal introduction to the eccentricities of Ms. Darbus, the drama teacher.  And just as naturally, the other four main characters (and at least some of our supporting kids) are there, chatting and laughing before the bell.  Some screenwriters might call this efficient.  I call it damned lazy myself, but what the hell.  Whatever moves this thing along.

Gabriella sees Troy before he sees her, but she seems unsure it’s him.  So she walks right past him without looking back.  Then he sees her, but he’s not sure it’s her…and in any case, his view is blocked by the flirtatious Sharpay.  So as Ms. Darbus walks around urging everyone to sign up for new activities, including the winter “musicale” (and I’m sure that won’t be important later in this “musicale”), he decides to find out — by calling her on his cellphone.

Seriously.  He doesn’t wait until Ms. Darbus has walked by him, and then sneak a glance and a wave.  He doesn’t bide his time until the end of homeroom, and then catch her as she comes out the door.  No, Troy gives her a ring without stopping to think about the consequences.  I mean, dude, Bolton!  If her ringer’s off, she may not even notice you’re calling.  And if her ringer’s on — which of course it is — you’re probably going to get caught.  Which, of course, you will.

In fact, Troy’s phone call has adverse consequences for a lot of people.  We find out that Sharpay and Ryan must both share Gabriella’s incredibly generic ringtone, as otherwise there’s no reason (besides authorial convenience) for them to pull out their phones and get detention.  Gabriella gets fifteen minutes too, as does Troy when Ms. Darbus sees who is calling.  Chad’s attempt to weasel Troy out of detention lands him in the same boat — a bit unfairly, I thought, as he was actually being pretty polite.  Then Taylor can’t help but whisper a crack at Chad’s expense, and…you know the rest.

“Shall the carnage continue?” overacts Ms. Darbus.  I hope not, lady, because this whole stunt is clearly meant to define who will be our main characters, and six is plenty.  Then Jason decides this is the perfect time to ask about Ms. Darbus’s holidays.

Thank God for you that Jason’s in this movie, Troy, or you’d be the dimmest bulb around.  One phone call, six detentions.  Pretty impressive.

Speaking of impressively high numbers, now that our feature presentation has introduced (most of) its characters, it’s time for a rant.  Topic:  the beginning of High School Musical feels long.  And it’s not because an objectively long amount of time has passed either.  As of this point, we are not even twelve minutes into a ninety-eight minute movie, which is a respectable-enough allowance for the story setup.  So, after an amount of thought that this movie frankly doesn’t deserve, I have finally realized what the problem was:  the script has too many coincidences right off the bat.

Let me explain.  In real life, sometimes we don’t know the cause for why things happen.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but we don’t have to know the cause to accept the effect.  If a penguin falls out of the sky right in front of you, you’ll probably wonder why it happened, but you don’t need to know why to believe that it happened — because it happened to you.

In a movie, though, we’re not as quick to accept things just because we see them.  If too many events happen that don’t have obvious explanations, everything starts to feel unreal.  So movies have to be very careful about letting us know not only what’s happening, but why.  In other words, everything that happens has to be clearly motivated.  The action onscreen should proceed from who the characters are, or result from the things they’ve done.  If it doesn’t, then there’s no good reason for it to be there.  It could just have been an accident.  Or in screenwriter speak, coincidence.

Coincidences in a script are bad.  They detract from our ability to care about what’s happening.  Now I’ll grant you that some coincidences are unavoidable.  The question is, what’s the upper limit?  Well, here’s the answer I like.  I first encountered it in a book called The Secrets of Action Screenwriting by a man named Bill Martell.  Can you guess how many?  Go on.  Take a guess.

One.  That’s right.  One coincidence per screenplay.  And the bad news is, it always comes right at the beginning, when the story starts.  We accept something random happening at that point, because most of the time you couldn’t tell the story otherwise.  But afterward, everything has to come from the characters and the action.  You don’t get any more freebies.

So how many does High School Musical try to get away with?  Let’s count and see.

Coincidence #1:  Troy and Gabriella meet at the beginning of the movie because they’re yanked on stage for some karaoke at a New Year’s Eve party.  It’s not like they planned to meet each other; it just happened.  That’s one coincidence.  And normally, that coincidence would start our story.  However…here, it doesn’t.  See, they meet at a ski resort.  But the movie’s not supposed to take place at a ski resort.  It’s supposed to take place at a high school, and they don’t go to the same high school.  If this were real life, then Gabriella and Troy would probably never see each other again.  And then we wouldn’t have a movie.  (What a wonderful world that would be.)  So the script has to make up for its mistake with another coincidence.

Coincidence #2:  Gabriella’s mother, unbeknownst to us, was in the process of relocating their two-person family because of a new work assignment.  Of all the cities to which her mother could have moved for work, she moves to Albuquerque…which just so happens to be where Troy lives.  And of all the houses in Albuquerque she could have chosen to live in, she chooses one that will send Gabriella to the same school as Troy.  That’s just insulting.  If you were in the mood, in fact, you could count that as two coincidences — since Albuquerque is a big enough city that Gabriella and Troy could easily live there at the same time and never know it.

But we’re not done yet.  Even though they go to the same school now, they still need to be brought together again.  So, does the movie establish Gabriella as a hoops fan, who arranges to “run into” Troy at a pep rally after realizing he’s the big star?  That would have been a motivated solution to the problem.  (It would also have echoed a key scene in Grease, for whatever that’s worth.  More on that a bit later.)

Instead, she is randomly assigned to his homeroom — of all the homerooms there must be in a school that massive — so they can meet as quickly as possible.  That’s Coincidence #3 (or possibly #4).  And again, if you were in the mood, you could say that the non-organic introduction of our main characters is due to the ringtone coincidence, possibly our fifth.  I won’t go that far, though.  By that point, Troy and Gabriella have been reintroduced, and the movie can begin.  Still, that’s anywhere between three and five coincidences, depending on how generous you feel.

Now let’s look at Grease by way of comparison.  Unlike Troy and Gabriella, Danny and Sandy don’t have to meet right at the start of the story.  They’ve already spent the summer together.  That’s not a coincidence; it’s a part of the movie’s backstory.  So the script uses its one coincidence exactly when it should — to get Sandy into Rydell High.  And because we meet all the other characters through Danny and Sandy, Grease avoids that pitfall too.

There is arguably another coincidence here too, but I’m less inclined to be aggressive about it because Grease hides it pretty well.  It’s dropped in right after the finish of “Summer Nights.”

(Who could notice a small plot convenience with those high notes still ringing in their head?)  Sandy starts talking about Danny, the guy she met over the summer — to Rizzo, who’s Danny’s ex-girlfriend.  Is it a real coincidence?  That depends on how you look at it.  Sandy was introduced to Rizzo by Frenchie, who already knew both girls.  And the topic of conversation was what Sandy had done on her summer vacation.  The dialogue does have to be forced a little bit for Danny’s name to get mentioned, though.  So I wouldn’t count it, but I think a fair-minded but strict person could.

Whichever way you read it, though, the rest of the opening is motivated.  Danny and Sandy don’t get thrown together in the same homeroom.  Rizzo deliberately arranges their reunion, under circumstances where she knows that Danny will either have to blow off Sandy or embarrass himself in front of his buddies.

In other words, the scene is motivated by Rizzo’s established bitchiness, coupled with her established desire to make Danny miserable.  And everyone’s reactions to the meeting tell us important things, not only about Rizzo and Danny and Sandy, but about the supporting characters too.  That’s craft.  Score the openings as strictly or as generously as you like, but the fact is that when it comes to motivating the plot, Grease has it all over High School Musical.

Amazingly enough, Gabriella is not incredibly pissed at Troy for helping her get detention on the first day.  In fact, she’s pretty pleased to see him.  They do the whole finishing-each-other’s-sentences thing, and we get filled in on some backstory that we already either knew or could have guessed, with one exception — Troy’s friends are insane.  That’s the only explanation for why he thinks his singing a little karaoke over break would wig them out.  Just imagine that conversation:

CHAD:         “So, what’d you do over break, man?”

TROY:          “Ah, you know.  Did some skiing, a little snowboarding…”

JASON:       “Cool, cool…”

TROY:           “…sat by the fire, watched the hotties go by…”

ZEKE:         “Nice!”

TROY:         “…sang a karaoke song, worked on my jumpshot…”

CHAD:       “Awesome, dude — wait, what?”

TROY:                    “My jumpshot.  You know how Coach is always talking about getting those mechanics down.  Fake right, break left–”

CHAD:      “No, no, before that.”

TROY:       “Oh, yeah, that.  I got dragged on stage at a New Year’s party, and I sang ‘Something New’ with this amazingly cute girl.  Her name was–”

JASON:    “You…sang?!”

TROY:       “Yeah.”

ZEKE:      “And did you…like it?”

TROY:      “Yeah, man, it was pretty cool.”


If I knew there was a deleted scene from High School Musical where approximately that exchange took place, I’d give up a lot to see it just once.  Not everything, mind you.  Not my soul.  But a lot.  More than I’m comfortable admitting, that’s for sure.  Anyway, back to our “story.”  Walking down the hall, Troy and Gabriella see the sign-up sheet for the winter musical.  They josh each other a little about signing up, but neither makes a move to do so.

That’s when Sharpay makes her move…to establish herself as the villain.  Within a timespan of just over one minute, she:

  • Flirts openly with Troy, who is clearly meant for Gabriella
  • Is just as openly dismissive of our girl Gabi, who is sweetness and light itself
  • Displays phenomenal hubris by scrawling her Jane Hancock across the whole “pairs” portion of the sign-up sheet
  • Demonstrates braggadocio by mentioning her extensive experience, and condescension by promising both Gabriella and Troy to “find something for you” — in the same breath
  • Gives Gabi the nervous fish-eye after what she thinks is a loaded comment about the sheet
  • Repeats #1 (at length) and #5 again, just in case we missed them the first time

I usually prefer my entertainment to be subtler.  Still, the lack of subtlety is all to the good here.  In a universe of relatively bland teenage caricatures, Sharpay stands out for her forcefulness and vibrance.  More importantly, she is the first character who has made it clear that a) she wants something and b) she’ll fight for it.

This is her musical, it’s going to stay her musical, and she will do anything to keep aspirants toward her spotlight locked in their social boxes and out of hers.  Her personality overload does a real number on Troy, who walks away from their brief conversation looking as though he’s been hit by a pink Mack truck.  It’s a good look on him; I’d like to see it more often.  Pity that Sharpay has so clearly marked herself for doom.

Because, you see, all her antics have accomplished is to plant the idea of auditioning deep into Troy’s head.  He even jokes about it with Chad while stretching before practice.  Troy’s excuses for his sudden interest in theatre come across as paper-thin, so I guess it’s lucky for him that Chad is so lost in his own universe as to be incapable of noticing.  We’re talking here about a guy who thinks that the lifestyle and habits of a New Mexico prep player should be judged by the metric WWLD (“What would LeBron do?”), and that show tunes are inessential to culture.  Troy sighs as Chad walks away, so we can get that he’s conflicted, and then starts the official practice.

This leads into the second song, “Get’cha Head in the Game,” a hip-hop-influenced number which has a driving beat that builds itself up out of the rhythms of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers.  Normally, I’m a sucker for a found-rhythm song.  (And it is hilarious to see Chad singing and dancing right after his complete dismissal of the musical art form.)  But this song manages to hit so many of my buttons simultaneously that it becomes my least favorite of the movie, and I don’t even have to talk about Zac Efron’s questionable lip-synching to give three good reasons why.

First, it’s basically about basketball, until Gabriella starts intruding on Troy’s consciousness.  And while I love basketball, I don’t care for a song about it, especially not one this repetitious.  Second, and more fundamentally, it breaks sharply with the “rules” High School Musical has already established.

Most musicals show with the first song that something unrealistic can take place “naturally” within their universe…namely, people breaking into song and dance routines that are backed by an invisible orchestra.  But “Something New” was, in showing two people singing karaoke, an exercise in realism.  So “Get’cha Head in the Game” comes across as jarring — we weren’t prepared for it beforehand.

Worst of all, this song can’t even maintain its own boundaries of fantasy.  It jump-cuts toward the end to Troy and his teammates dribbling in lines, each with a basketball…when just seconds before, it had showed Troy’s teammates sliding into a circle on the floor around him as he shot his basketball away!  This is supposed to be a movie musical, but what we see here is a music video.

Meanwhile, Sharpay is continuing to try and not-so-subtly warn Gabriella off by marking Troy as her territory.  Unfortunately for Sharpay, Gabriella isn’t listening very closely.  She’s too busy finding a pi-related problem with an equation on the board.  Her insight earns her an admission of error, a welcome to East High, and quite possibly a gold star.  Taylor, sitting nearby, looks thoughtful.

(Note to Gabriella:  if you want to avoid being marked as a “freaky genius,” correcting the teacher is perhaps not the most efficient way to pursue that goal.  I speak from experience.)  Sharpay, meanwhile, looks miffed — though what reason she has for it, I’m sure I don’t know.  It’s not like she was about to do the same thing.  Maybe she’s just mad that no one is paying attention to her.

If so, she’s about to overdose on the opposite problem — at least as far as she’s concerned.  Troy’s simmering desires have finally bubbled close enough to the surface for him to risk checking the audition sign-up sheet.  But why?  This makes no sense, you see.  Wasn’t Troy concerned about hiding his interest in public singing?  He is not just some anonymous student.  He’s a Big Man on Campus.

There only needs to be one classmate curious enough to wonder what extracurricular activity has caught the attention of Mr. Basketball, and Troy is exposed.  And as it happens, Ryan is stationed by a statue of the campus mascot, casing the people who are so arrogant as to presume that they could compete against the Evans siblings.  Poor Ryan.  I’m guessing Sharpay ordered him to be the watchdog so she could spend her time on important grooming-related activities.

Seriously, why does Ryan just happen to be present the one time Troy “wanders by” the sign-up sheet again?  (Even now, the coincidences keep piling up.)  Ryan is a student.  He has classes, and lunch, and at least one club on his schedule.  How much time can he be there on any given day?  Does he just hang out by the sheet during his free period?  Perhaps he also eats by the statue during audition season, so that the sheet is covered during the lunch hour.  I wonder if he does a walk-by in between classes as well.  Hell, what do I know?  Maybe he never goes to classes.  Maybe it’s just him and the wildcat all day, two statues standing in eternal vigilance against threats to Sharpay’s glory.

In any case, Sharpay and Ryan are shortly en route to gather some intel on the new girl.  Being 2000’s-era modern teens, they do this via search engine on a PC in the library.  (If they were teenagers today, they could have whipped out their smartphones and Googled her right there in the hallway.  What a difference a decade makes, right?)  The top two results are both newspaper articles discussing the academic exploits of our heroine.  The third result seems to be about a newborn animal at the San Diego Zoo.  Somewhat-related note:  Zookeeper, with Kevin James, is a movie I would rather be watching right now.  (Or maybe I could just watch this.  Again.)

Originally, I thought it was highly implausible that a search for the name Gabriella Montez — without any quotes, even! — would have gotten such good results.  But I am forced to issue a point to Peter Barsocchini for good character naming, as some basic research convinced me that it’s more likely than I thought.

While “Gabriella” is a common enough name for girls, it’s not even close to mainstays like “Emily” or “Elizabeth.”  And “Montez” is not even in the top 500 most common surnames for U.S. Hispanics, let alone the population at large.  There might only be a few Gabriella Montezes in America.  Now, if Gabi’s last name had been Garcia, or Rodriguez, or Martinez, Sharpay and Ryan might have had a much harder time sifting through the results.

Oh, I’m sorry.  Was the real-world plausibility of a fictional search engine query not a topic of burning concern for you?  Are you getting the impression that I’m researching trivialities so I can put off this review?  Well, you’re right.  But in my defense, I have a good reason.  We’re not even twenty minutes into this movie.  Our nominal heroes have not yet done anything of consequence to advance the main storyline — they’re still dithering about in their own respective social spheres.  And yet Sharpay is about to start the ball rolling toward her inevitable defeat.

Yes, you read that right.

Upon discovering Gabriella’s history as a scholastic “whiz kid,” Ryan (who will spend the rest of the movie proving himself to be a few dancers short of a chorus line) asks an atypically sharp question.  Why would this “Einsteinette” care about being in a musical?  Is she really so interested?  Following is the exchange that Sharpay and I had the first time I watched the movie several years ago.

SHARPAY:    “I’m not sure that she is.  And we needn’t concern ourselves with amateurs.”

  1. R:              “Exactly.”

SHARPAY:         “But — there’s no harm in making certain that Gabriella’s welcomed into school activities that are, well, appropriate for her.”

  1. R:              “NO! You MORON!”

SHARPAY:         “After all…she loves pi.”

  1. R:              “Wait. WHAT?!  WHAT DO YOU EVEN MEAN?!”

This is the moment, folks.  Based on her limited information, Sharpay has correctly evaluated Gabriella as someone she probably doesn’t need to worry about.  And then she worries about her anyway.  You may not see all the gears that are about to be set in motion.  To be fair, the story hasn’t introduced some of them yet.  (Kelsi, for example, won’t pop up until about nine minutes down the road.)

But if you hear a line like that and don’t instinctively know what’s coming, you haven’t watched enough Disney movies, where the heroes often wouldn’t even enter the fray if the villains left bad enough alone.  Like all the wicked witches and evil stepmothers that are her spiritual ancestors, Sharpay’s attempt to guarantee victory will seal her doom.

And seriously, what is with that last line?  Sharpay has no reason to say that to Ryan.  He wasn’t there when Gabriella corrected the teacher earlier.  He won’t get the obvious homonym joke.  For that matter, neither do I…albeit in a different way.  Look, I get that Sharpay is deliberately confusing “pi,” the mathematical constant, with “pie,” the delicious pastry.

But where has there been a pie to make the joke work?  Was Gabriella involved in some bake sale we didn’t see?  Is one of her classes Home Ec?  Did she take an after-school job at New Mexico Pie Company?  (“Life is short.  Eat pie.”)  Could this somehow be a reference to Grease that I’m not catching?  Does Barsocchini’s real-life daughter Gabriella love pie?  WHAT THE HELL, PETER?!

Deep breaths.  Deep breaths.  Stupid script.  Deep breaths.

Sharpay’s plan becomes apparent in the next scene, as the students all serve the detentions Ms. Darbus had assigned them that morning.  (This follows earlier events naturally enough, unless you stop to think about it.  See, everything we’ve seen since Troy stepped off the bus is all supposed to take place on the same day.  That’s quite a packed day.)

I’m sure some of the students we see are in Drama Club, but Ms. Darbus has her delinquents painting sets and assembling props right alongside her regulars.  How much work does she expect them to do in just fifteen minutes, which was the length of the detentions she assigned?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep them for a half-hour?  Or maybe the real reason she brought them there was to deliver a lecture on cell phones to a captive audience — since that’s what she proceeds to do with little regard for how hard they are working.

Oh, right, Sharpay’s plan.  Almost forgot.  Well, she dropped copies of those articles mentioning Gabriella in Taylor’s locker, and now Taylor is gung-ho about pitching the new girl on becoming a member of East High’s scholastic decathlon team.  Gabriella proves resistant, which is clearly not what Sharpay had hoped for.  Someone engaged in extracurricular preparations for scholastic competitions every day would likely be unable to take on the time commitment of rehearsing for a musical, after all.

So Sharpay intercedes with enthusiasm for the idea, which is literally the second stupid thing she’s done in under a minute of screen time.  Why not wear a neon sign around your neck that says “I planted those articles” while you’re at it, sweetie?  Fortunately for her, Taylor — who has presumably gone to school with Miss Drama Princess long enough to know she’s a manipulative fake — is too preoccupied with giving her squad a brain boost to wonder why Sharpay is offering such an unusually friendly gesture of support.

Meanwhile, Troy and Chad are not in the gym warming up for basketball practice.  When Coach Dad notices this, he overacts his way into the auditorium to retrieve his players from detention…and unprofessionally questions his colleague in front of the students.  This leads to a showdown between the two teachers in front of the school principal.

So now, into this already overcrowded movie, with its main storyline of self-actualization versus peer pressure, its subplot about young love, and the promise of no less than three future competitions, we’re going to add a faculty feud.  Fantastic.  Even worse, the principal turns a blind eye to Coach Bolton’s behavior, instead asking him how the team is coming along.  I’m in perfect sympathy with Ms. Darbus’s resulting disgust.

It’s in these scenes, by the way, that you can see how good an actress Alyson Reed is.  Sure, she’s hamming it up, because that’s what the Darbus role requires.  But she is doing so according to a plan.  Her gestures and enunciations are perfectly calculated to give the impression that it is not her, but her character, who is going over the top.

Better still, she reads hidden meanings into certain lines that can sustain them.  (Maybe the best example so far is “I hope you don’t make a habit of it,” which most actors would address to the whole group of teenagers in detention…but which Reed delivers as a low-key rebuke of Sharpay in particular.)  So her broad performance comes across well.

By contrast, Bart Johnson — who is clearly running on instinct as Coach Bolton — just looks silly.  Even during his clichéd pep talk at the end of practice, where he has almost all the lines, he has the scene stolen right out from under him by Corbin Bleu’s delivery of Chad’s ubiquitous “What team?” chant.  I wonder if Johnson has rewatched this movie enough times to realize how bad he looks.  C’mon, Coach.  To paraphrase your character from that lousy pep talk, this movie cannot be good unless each and every one of you is fully focused on that goal.

Okay, enough acting analysis.  We’re coming up on the end of Act One — that is to say, the first commercial break.  So it’s time to see whether either of our leads takes even one step toward starting the main plot before we’re drowned in ads.

First up, Gabriella.  We catch up with her as she is politely deflecting another of Taylor’s recruiting efforts.  She tries to glean some information about Troy, for whom Taylor clearly has a lot of contempt.  Other than an invitation to sit with the smart kids at lunch the next day so that she can see East High’s social jungle in action, Gabriella gains nothing concrete from the scene.  So I’m scoring that as a swing and a miss for her.  I would like to note, however, that I feel bad for Monique Coleman.  Taylor actually has a line that includes the phrase “hottie superbomb.”  Whatever you were paid for your efforts in this crap heap, Monique, it wasn’t enough.

Will we have better luck with Troy?  We join him during a game of one-on-one with his dad.  Coach Bolton thinks they’re engaged in practice, but Troy’s mind is clearly elsewhere.  He starts asking questions about trying new things, and what if your friends just laugh at you, and so forth.  I swear that if I didn’t know he was referencing the musical, I would start to think this was the most awkward coming-out scene in the history of TV movies.  But at least he’s obliquely referencing his inner conflict to his father.  I guess that’s a small step forward for him.

Unfortunately for Troy, Coach Blockhead has a one-track mind.  He somehow manages to turn the conversation back to the game, which is now one week away.  (That’s funny.  Just this morning, it was two weeks away.  Time must pass quickly in Albuquerque.)  He also reminds Troy of how much a college scholarship is worth.

Umm, excuse me?  Coach Bolton, sir?  I see that you and your family live in a very nice home.  You know, that two-story brick building behind you with the massive porch?  It seems like you ought to be able to afford to send your son to college even if he doesn’t get any aid.  So maybe you should be acting to reduce the pressure of a major game on him, instead of piling it on by reminding him of both his leadership role and the stakes.

And we’re finally at our first commercial break.  For those of you playing our home game, please note that after twenty-four minutes of movie, the main plot hasn’t started yet.

Lao-tze said a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And you’ve taken that, so you’re almost done! On to Part 2.