More than a TV movie and now more than a DVD, High School Musical is a phenomenon. This modestly made Disney Channel project, which aired in January, is the cable network’s highest-rated TV movie, and there’s already a franchised version to be peddled to schools across the country, as well as rumors about a Broadway production.
The plot of High School Musical is, as it should be, simple and sincere. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) meet cute at a party, where — at first shy and unwilling — they sing a karaoke duet, immediately establishing that they harmonize beautifully and click romantically. (Although, this being a Disney production, they do nothing more than gaze soulfully at each other.)
Back in school, they retreat to their separate cliques — basketball star Troy is driven to win the championship, while Gabriella runs math drills for the ”scholastic decathlon.” What reunites them are auditions for a school musical, overseen by the fussy Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed). In this fantasy world, academics are as esteemed as athletics, and Darbus can force her naughtier students to paint stage sets during detention — oh, if only all public schools were this sensible.
Our two leads need competitor enemies, of course, and thus the comic relief: the sniping sister-brother team of Sharpay and Ryan Evans (Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel), accustomed to being the stars of every year’s production, who find their shoo-in status threatened for the first time.
High School Musical was directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, choreographer of 1987’s schlock classic Dirty Dancing, as well as, in recent years, a TV director for such shows as Gilmore Girls. Ortega is Musical’s secret weapon: He keeps the plot moving and the kids jumping, staging a terrific gym set piece in which Troy’s team bursts into song while bouncing basketballs in time with the music. The songs are wispy but lively trifles with positive-thinking lyrics including, yes, ”Everyone is special in their own way.”
The DVD is an ideal way to experience High School Musical — I recommend watching with the ”Sing Along” feature, which displays the lyrics as subtitles. Other extras include a making-of that reminds young viewers that this is hard work (Efron says he had to practice three hours a day — basketball, not dancing), and ”Learning the Moves,” in which Ortega takes us through the steps of choreographing.
Nothing here is better than your average high school production of The Music Man, but High School Musical, with its big throbbing heart, gives out all the right messages without being slow-witted or preachy. Its alternate title could have been Squeaky-Clean Dancing.