I can remember back 15 years ago - we didn't have pay TV, so watching the Disney Channel was left to Saturday Disney on Prime. One very special Saturday, Channel 7 was doing a special movie night to promote their new short-lived singing talent show 'It Takes Two'. Grant Denyer and Terasa Livingstone hosted a special presentation of 'Grease' and what would be the free-to-air Australian premiere of 'High School Musical' ('HSM'), which saw 1.23 million Aussies getting their head in the game for the first time. I don't mean this an over-exaggeration, but that night changed my life. A nine-year-old Christopher's mind was blown, and his path changed forever.
For those who don't know, 'High School Musical' follows Troy and Gabriella, who meet at a New Year's Eve party where they are forced to do karaoke together. The two hit it off, but know they most likely won't ever see each other again. But Gabriella ends up transferring to Troy's high school, East High. That party changed both of them - Troy, once set on a life devoted to basketball, and Gabriella, a science brainiac, now have a song in their heart. When they accidentally get a callback for the winter musical, the whole school ends up in a frenzy with the status quo broken and the norm shaken up.
Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs) come in an array of colours; before 'HSM', where all over the place. There were a lot of Halloween movies, and while they have their own sense of nostalgia, DCOMs found their niche with musicals, along with 'The Cheetah Girls' three years prior. 'High School Musical' brought in 7.7 million viewers upon debut in the United States, the second-highest at the time. Its sequel, 'High School Musical 2', is still the most-watched DCOM, with a recording-breaking 17.2 million people watching its U.S. premiere - not only breaking records for the Disney Channel, it's still the highest-rating movie made for cable (but more on 'HSM2' next year).
Since its creation, the Disney Channel struggled during the 80s and 90s, skewing more to young children with programs featuring Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse with a focus on education. In the late 90s, it started to make the switch to tweens, and by the early 2000s had turned its programs to ratings gold with shows like 'Lizzie McGuire', 'That's So Raven' and 'The Proud Family', opening the door for merchandising possibilities. But 'HSM' and their new series 'Hannah Montana' brought in literally billions for the company. These where no longer cheap shows to hold childrens' attentions; they were huge moneymakers. In the 2000s, Disney wasn't doing spectacularly - hand-drawn animation was basically dead, the parks where at a lull, and outside of Pixar (which Disney wouldn't buy up until 2006) and the 'Pirates' franchise, the company was in need of something to bring in the dough... and the tweens supplied.
The merch, which again really took off with the sequel, was everywhere. It was the Jojo Siwa of the '06 toy isle. While most was targeted at young girls, the extended universe books and video games (all six of them) also hold a lot of nostalgia for me. Both the DVD and CD have also had many editions that hold a place in my generation's nostalgia. The DVD netted US$100 million for Disney with 8 million copies sold, and the soundtrack sold over 7 million copies worldwide and is still the best-selling TV soundtrack of all time in the United States. Outside of physical media, the franchise of course grew with two sequels, the third being a theatrical film that held the record for biggest opening day for a musical until 2012 with 'Les Misérables'. They also had a Sharpay-centred spinoff film, as well as four international versions including Argentina, Brazil and China. Most recently, the franchise expanded even further with 'High School Musical: The Musical - The Series' - a launch title for Disney+ alongside 'The Mandalorian'; that's how valuable an intellectual property 'HSM' is for Disney. In a surprise to, I think, everyone the show perfectly continued the film's legacy, while creating a new character for the younger generation to identify with. We also can't forget the concert tour (which of course was recorded for DVD), a stage show, a reality TV show to get a song in 'High School Musical 3: Senior Year', and of course everyone's favourite... 'High School Musical: The Ice Tour'.
But how did 'High School Musical' become one of the most influential films of the 21st century? I think it's simple: it broke the status quo. 'High School Musical' breaks down barriers in a way every living being can understand. I was a kid who just floated by, wasn't apart of cliques, had friends but they all had their own interests. I had no one like me, I wasn't into sports (even though my mother did try over and over... and yes, I tried out for basketball because of this film), I wasn't super brainy, I couldn't sing or act - I was a middle kid. I liked watching movies, but at 9 I can't say I had a huge grasp on them outside of Disney. When I first saw 'High School Musical', it spoke to me, and it said: "It's okay, you don't have to be one thing; you can do and be whoever you want to" (wow, I'm crying on Sunday night writing about 'High School Musical'; 2021 really has already been a rollercoaster). And it did it through musical numbers, giving me such a strong connection to the genre. The first time I heard 'Stick to the Status Quo' or 'We're All in This Together' 15 years ago on that Saturday night dancing on my parents' bed with my sister, it moved me in a way I couldn't explain, and I could never have expected how much this TV movie would change me. 'High School Musical', for me at least, is the reason I'm even writing for SWITCH in the first place - I really fell in love with movies because of it, and it was the jumping-off point for a lot of decisions in my life including film school. That's wild considering it's a TV movie, but my obsession extended pass the merch. I wanted to learn everything I could about the production, watching every behind-the-scenes clip ever produced, consuming everything director Kenny Ortega had his hands in and who I owe my life to, and creating a new burning passion in me.
I think that's the one thing that's missed when people look back at 'HSM': its message. You always hear about the songs, the cheesy lines, Baby Zac and Vanessa, but I think on a subconscious level the franchise opened the path for more equality and acceptance amongst children.
I think that's the one thing that's missed when people look back at 'HSM': its message. You always hear about the songs, the cheesy lines, Baby Zac and Vanessa, but I think on a subconscious level the franchise opened the path for more equality and acceptance amongst children. No, I'm not saying 'HSM' started a revolution or fixed everything, but seeing a "jock" want to also sing is a challenging concept for some kids - and frankly some adults (the same adults who think Harry Styles wearing a dress affects them personally) to comprehend - and for many, 'High School Musical' is the first time a lot see that you can be both and that it's okay to do so.
We all have our movie, that one no one can touch. Sometimes it defined a generation, sometimes you're the only one who's ever heard of it. I'm glad that 'High School Musical' was a success for my generation, and still speaks to generations today through the surprisingly touching 'High School Musical: The Musical - The Series'. I wanted to hate it, but once I'd finished it released it's a beautiful love letter to the original movie that made me cry thanks to some unexpected cameos, and perfectly brings the themes and overall message of acceptance with its more diverse cast including a lead gay character... on Disney+ (yes, they moved the 'Love, Simon' spinoff, 'Love, Victor' to Hulu, but small victories guys, small victories). Even in 2006, 'HSM' broke boundaries with its own cast, one lead half-Native American and half-Filipino, two lead African-American teens, and characters like Martha or Kelsi or Zeke - they weren't typical characters we saw in any media, let alone for teens, and they are celebrated here.
To this day, we all can't help but belt out 'Breaking Free' when we hear it, bust out all the moves to 'We're All in This Together' or say things like "Everybody loves a good jazz square," "What are those two doing in a tree?" or "Hey, just call me freaky call-back boy!"
So, say it with me: "What team? Wildcats! Wildcats, get your head in the game."
Here's to another year of Zac Efron trying to forget he was in this.