When High School Musical first aired on the Disney Channel on 20 January 2006, few could have foreseen how iconic it would become. The most successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever released, it spawned sequels, stage shows, spin-offs and a PR-perfect off-screen romance between leads Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.
A dedicated admirer of most early noughties high school movies, from Mean Girls to She’s the Man, it seems crazy to admit that High School Musical passed me by: I’m not sure how I managed it, but I simply never saw it. Curious to see how the heady days of 2006 seem a decade on, I sat down to watch this cultural touchstone ten years after its release
We open on New Year’s Eve. The camera pans towards a beautiful girl, immersed in a book. Wait. She reads and is beautiful? Fewer than ten seconds have passed, and yet we already know that this girl cannot be like other girls. Her name is Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), and she begs to continue reading rather than go to parties, like a good, chaste, modest young woman.
Now we meet Troy (Zac Efron): a sweating, dedicated young man who also spurns parties for his higher concerns.
Gabriella and Troy are both at some kind of budget holiday camp (this feels immediately suspicious to me because both families are clearly too posh to be here: Troy’s mum is wearing an emerald green gown and matching velvet shawl so you know she’s a classy lady), but they haven’t met yet, because, as demonstrated, they are too busy with their all-consuming passions.
But we know it’s meant to be because they are already wearing the same outfit: a purple tracksuit. Gabby’s is velour, paired with a pink tank top and pink ugg boots because it’s the noughties, y’all! Troy’s excuse is that he’s doing sports, I guess.
Anyway, the two are forced by their parents to go to an on-camp kids party. They both look absolutely terrible: Troy’s collar has the wingspan of archangels, Gabriella’s “best clothes” seem to include flared cords. I can’t tell if this is a convincing move on the part of the costume team to reflect their status as obsessive dweebs who don’t socialise, or just 2006.
Standing alone at opposite sides of the room, Gabriella and Troy are singled out to perform. They look reluctant, but do it anyway. Their furtive glances to the karaoke’s autocue makes it clear that they don’t know the song, but inexplicably know the tune. (This is what happens in musicals, I suppose).
The dancing is the most uncomfortable I have ever seen on screen. Everyone starts to get in to it, though, and the entire crowd looks hideous. Again, is this a clever costuming move to emphasise that these nerds don’t have anywhere to be on New Year’s Eve, or is it just 2006?! YOU DECIDE.
They swap phone numbers, because apparently children’s walkie-talkies had that function back then.
Welcome to East High! By a twist of fate, Gabriella has just transferred to Troy’s school. The entire school set seems to have been constructed from a cardboard box, some poster paint and a couple of pipe cleaners. Clearly the filmmakers blew their entire budget on the holiday park.
I am absolutely floored to discover that Troy is popular. His friends seem particularly stupid, so maybe that explains it. One of said friends jokes that a popular girl has spent her holidays “shopping for mirrors”. Why? I ask internally. Is she a vampire, constantly searching for that one magic mirror that will allow her to see her reflection? Is there a county-wide mirror shortage that she is benevolently responding to? Then I remember that NO ONE in this sickening dystopia has a front-facing camera, and I openly weep for teens past.
Now it’s time for some actual lessons, this one led by a woman draped in a purple leopard print tunic, so we know she’s a drama teacher. Class lasts exactly one and a half minutes – barely enough time for the teacher to ceremonially put all the students’ phones in a bucket (“Cell-itary Confinement”), let alone sigh about the school musical – and I begin to realise why the students at East High are so stupid.
Enter drama star Sharpay, glittering in a glorious pink tweed suit (with a midi-length skirt). Are we meant to think she looks ridiculous? Gabriella seems to, but she is literally wearing the exact same outfit in a questionable shade of mint. They even have matching wet-look lip gloss and dusky eyeshadow.
Sharpay asks Troy and Gabriella if they’re signing up to audition in the school musical. It’s made immediately clear that we’re not meant to like Sharpay because she has the audacity to be both ambitious and a girl, with, like, feminine mannerisms and stuff. The bitch. (As she notes, Troy is ambitious too, but y’know, the good kind. The man kind.) I instinctively like her because a) she knows what she wants and b) she’s named after a dog.
I can’t tell if Sharpay fancies Troy or just wants him stone cold dead (which is my general attitude towards boys too, babe). It’s extra confusing because one of the main jokes in this film seems to be that she’s having sex with her brother Ryan.
It’s basketball practice! Troy is team captain, and starts singing a song to distract his teammates, thereby teaching them a lesson about paying attention. Or something. In the process, he reveals himself to be surprisingly uncoordinated for a star athlete (or indeed, a Disney Channel megastar). He claps from his shoulders. I can’t tell if the coach is Troy’s dad or whether all men just looked the same back then.
Back to class, and Gabriella pretends she hates people thinking she’s clever but visibly shivers with delight when she has a chance to correct the teacher in front of her new classmates. It doesn’t matter, though, because class still only lasts one and a half minutes, lest the audience, I mean students, zone out.
Sharpay decides to research her competition, which we’re supposed to shun her for, but I can’t help feeling like this is just good preparation. I don’t even know where to begin with SearchTheInternet.com. It is perhaps the most disturbing thing in this entire movie so far. It’s hideous, and slow, and a very common name returns just 48 results.
Sharpey lets a geeky girl know about the new geeky girl so she can lure her into her geeky club, or whatever.
The drama teacher and basketball coach fight over Troy in a surprisingly piercing scene on the patriarchal connotations of a sports-obsessed culture. Like literally every other scene in this movie, it ends two minutes later when the school bell rings…
Why is geeky girl Taylor wheeling a mini suitcase everywhere she goes? Even across rough terrain? Is she an Apprentice candidate?!
Taylor mocks the cheerleaders for their girly interest in human males and nail beds, and says she and Gabriella exist in an alternate (read: better) universe. Superiority complex, overnight bag: she’s definitely an Apprentice candidate. She persuades Gabriella to join her geek club: adding, shock horror, a third extracurricular commitment to the mix. This is a movie entirely based on the timetabling complications of a school overly devoted to its students’ hobbies.
It’s time for the musical auditions, and the twincenstuous brother and sister perform a highly disturbing but nevertheless polished routine. There is finger clicking, there is shoulder tapping, there is hand holding and twirling and leg kicking. There is a joke about JAZZ SQUARES. (I like these two. They care about their art.)
Troy and Gabriella show up late with no rehearsal but for some reason feel even more entitled to the lead roles. Troy flirts with the composer to try and secure the part, the manipulative little twerp, and the film seems to condone his actions. They get a callback. I’m wondering if the eponymous musical will ever actually get staged.
So far all the music has been pretty convincing plot-wise: all done on stages or as an elaborate team-building exercise. It’s going full musical now the basketball team and Sharpay team up for a song about being cool. Which is astounding as they seem to have little experience in that field.
These children are talented though: one child can make a cello sound identical to an electric guitar, another produces a freshly blowtorched crème brûlée from thin air.
It all goes a bit Scream Queens when Gabriella gets revenge on Sharpay for exposing her cleverness to the school by burning her décolletage with the boiling cheese on her fries. Gabriella goes on to insist that there’s “this whole other person inside her just waiting to get out”, and I can’t help but feel that that whole other person is a danger to society.
Troy gets tears in his eyes because he “just wants to be a guy”, and Gabriella says it’s great to “feel like a girl”, cementing the film’s touching message of “as long as you remain in the gender binary and heterosexual, kids, you can do whatever you like”.
REHEARSAL MONTAGE! Apparently hours of training could not prevent Gabriella and Troy from singing directly and consistently through their nostrils. During this touching scene, Troy and Gabriella practise some kind of ancient mating ritual where they wobble their heads at each other from across a crowded room. So far, still no musical.
Troy’s dad accuses him of not being an excellent singer, which shocks and hurts Troy to his very core. He’s welling up again, and how can we not feel sympathy with this young white man’s struggle to be celebrated in more than one field he performs mediocrely in? His friend Chad is saying it too: never before has one individual been so oppressed by society. I stand with Troy. Chad suggests that if he keeps on singing he might end up adored by middle-aged women instead of teen boys, or worse, in a leotard, which seems to frighten Troy because UGH, gay!
A sad subplot emerges where Chad dreams of throwing off his basketball shorts and becoming a Charlie’s Angel instead.
Taylor shows Gabriella a live video stream (they don’t have selfies at this school but hidden wireless cameras are apparently not a problem) of Troy renouncing her, and she does some spectacular solo sad dancing. NB: why are they putting up billboard sized photos of their students on the walls of this school?!
Chad and Taylor suddenly have a change of heart and decide to help their friends juggle their schedules, which seems like something they should be able to manage themselves if I’m honest. Pause for a moment to admire Taylor’s brow highlight.
Troy visits Gabriella at her house. When her mother asks him to leave, he calls her, breaks into her back garden, climbs into her balcony and mutters “turn around” darkly into the phone. Cute! If that wasn’t psycho enough, he starts singing his feelings. Does this movie end with a murder??
I can’t help but feel that Gabriella actually enjoys her life as a nerd more than singing. I mean, look at her smug little face. She has never looked as comfortable on stage.
Meanwhile, Troy has been so thoroughly convinced that he is good at everything that he does a double finger gun point at himself in the mirror. This is why white American masculinity is terrorising the globe. Sharpay, however, is continuing to be underappreciated by all those around her. Right now she is wearing a metallic beret with an orange shrug and matching pillar box bag and no one has said A WORD about it!!!
Anyway, she persuades the drama teacher to reschedule the callbacks for during Troy’s big game and Gabriella’s nerd commitments, so they’ll have to get creative to attend all three.
The basketball team takes a moment to show its support for the drama club. Troy self-identifies as an exclamation point because he is so extra. Ryan can’t read because he goes to a school where lessons are consistently sidelined in favour of extracurricular activities.
In a touching father-son heart-to-heart, Troy’s dad tells him all he wants to see is him having the time of his life, as long as the time of his life involves him playing basketball. Awh. Let the game begin!!
Meanwhile, at the callbacks, Sharpay and Ryan sing a sexy song about ambition, which, as we all know, is bad and embarrassing of them, because ambition is only acceptable if it dons the vestiges of traditional masculinity.
The scheduling clash doesn’t change all that much. Troy and Gabriella still run around giving half of their efforts to all their activities, arrive late and incorrectly dressed to their audition, are rude to their more dedicated competition, and have to restart their audition, but still seem to think they are better people who inherently deserve the parts. These two are the worst. Their mediocre performance (their dancing or singing has inexplicably not improved since they started taking it seriously) receives the validation of their peers and families.
Reminder: this is an audition. They still haven’t performed in an actual musical. It’s 2016, and still, no musical has been staged. The musical will never arrive.
Meanwhile, this story’s true hero Sharpay handles this entire situation with grace and dignity, wishing her competitors luck despite their prolonged campaign of sabotage.
All the students sing a song about being all in this together, which seems weird in a film where Troy and Gabriella’s success has depended on defeating other teams and auditionees, but there we go. Troy is really really happy, so I guess that means it must have been good for everyone else, too. End scene.