- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

If you have tweens in your house, you know all about Gabriella and Troy. Perhaps your elementary school child has spent hours memorizing the steps to “We’re All in This Together.” Maybe the allowance money is going for the DVD, the CD, the junior novel or licensed merchandise at Limited Too.

It’s all part of the “High School Musical” craze — and according to the stats, it is, indeed, a craze.

If you need to catch up, here’s the background. “High School Musical” is a made-for-Disney Channel movie that premiered in January. The production was made inexpensively (less than $5 million) and stars a group of telegenic teens and young adults.

The movie has won two Emmys and set Disney Channel viewership records. The soundtrack has gone triple platinum in the United States and is the No. 1 album of the year so far. When the DVD was released May 23, it sold 400,000 copies in one day, becoming the fastest-selling TV movie on DVD ever. More than 2.5 million copies have been sold since then. The junior novel and the sheet music also are best-sellers. Even cell-phone ring tones are being downloaded at a rate of 20,000 per month.

The plot of “High School Musical” is sweet and simple: The school jock (Troy) and the beautiful brainiac (Gabriella) meet on vacation and discover they both like to sing and perform. Gabriella later transfers to Albuquerque, N.M.’s fictional East High. Both long to try out for the high school musical production, but their respective cliques strive to keep them apart — and firmly planted in the high school miniuniverses in which they belong.

In the end, and after several catchy song-and-dance numbers, the teens and their friends discover it’s cool to be whomever you want to be.

Think “Romeo and Juliet” without the swords. Or “Grease” without the hickeys and innuendo.

In fact, the wholesomeness of “High School Musical” is partly what makes it so popular. At East High, there are no social problems such as depression, teen pregnancy or alcohol abuse. Gabriella and Troy gaze at each other but don’t even get to kiss. The villainous Sharpay and Ryan are self-involved but still nice.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says the appeal of “High School Musical” is that it is honest-to-goodness family programming, a rarity these days.

“Not only do younger kids like it,” he says. “Older kids do, too. That is unusual and hard to do.”

Disney has been building an arsenal of programming for teens during the past six or seven years. There are more than 60 original movies, and shows such as “Lizzie McGuire,” “That’s So Raven” and “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” have made stars out of the young actors.

“Disney has found its teen audience,” Mr. Thompson says, “and a neat aftereffect is they did it in a way that most parents are comfortable with. The teen audience was really a plum ripe for the picking — and Disney is picking it.”

That’s exactly what Disney set out to do, says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide.

“There is no project and no artist more important than the trust we are given by parents regarding the Disney brand,” he says.

“‘High School Musical’ is the quintessential example of multiple entry points for viewers,” he adds. “You have little kids watching it for the music and getting something completely different out of it than a 15-year-old. You have parents who are watching it and relating back to their own childhood. You have relatable themes — do I stand ground, or do I give in to peer pressure? Situations like that spill over into real life, into college and work.”

Mr. Marsh says the wholesome world of East High — where students are untroubled by SAT scores, gangs or mean girls — is part of the movie’s appeal.

“Everyone suggests that this is some fantasy version of high school,” Mr. Marsh says. “We didn’t intend to do a picture of angst. I’ve heard it called ‘corny’ and ‘saccharine.’ Kids acknowledge it is not a perfect reflection of real life — but that’s why they are attracted to it.”

Disney, of course, is hoping the attraction turns into a full-blown, worldwide love affair. The movie recently had its London premiere and will be opening in 100 international television markets, Mr. Marsh says. Plans for Latin American and Indian versions are in the works. The sequel — rumor has it the plot will center around the teens having summer jobs at a country club — will air on the Disney Channel next summer.

Meanwhile, Disney has received more than 15,000 inquires from schools and community groups asking for permission to put on their own productions. Disney has licensed the theatrical script to a handful of high schools for this school year, and Blake High School in Silver Spring is included in the inaugural group. The school recently held auditions for the musical and will perform it in December.

“I had not seen ‘High School Musical’ [when we were asked if we would like to perform it],” says Mike D’Anna, theater director at Blake. “But my 7-year-old granddaughter said, ‘I know that show.’ I was originally thinking of doing something heavier or darker, but putting on a popular production carries its own publicity.”

Jacquelyn Richard, 16, will play Sharpay in Blake’s production. After performing in “Anything Goes” last year, she says it was nice to try out for a show that was so familiar.

“I had seen ‘High School Musical’ on TV and really liked it,” she says. “I love that kind of movie. I love musicals and romance movies. I like ‘cheesy’ movies. It was nice to try out for a musical that I already know the songs.”

Mr. Marsh is hoping to hear sentiments like that for years. After all, “Over the Rainbow” is still sung seven decades after “The Wizard of Oz.” Why not “Start of Something New” from “High School Musical”?

“There has been an iconic musical for every decade,” Mr. Marsh says. “You had ‘West Side Story’ in the 1960s, ‘Grease’ in the ‘70s, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in the ‘80s, and ‘Grease’ in the ‘90s.

“What I hope is that ‘High School Musical’ will be the iconic musical of the first decade of the new millennium.”

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