Funny thing about phenomena. Those elusive buggers can come out of anywhere, unexpectedly. They can take even a calculated entertainment machine like Disney by surprise. Take the made-for-TV “High School Musical,” for example.
Not that it’s news to any parents of ’tweens: That meager little $4.2 million Disney Channel original movie, about a jock guy and brainy girl who find love en route to starring in the school’s musical, has become a bona fide phenom since it hit the cable network a year ago, playing in rerun perpetuity to more than 40 million viewers in this country alone.
A merchandising storm has followed: a quadruple-platinum soundtrack (2006’s top-selling disc), a chart-busting DVD and a blockbuster concert tour by most of the movie’s stars — until recently, nobodies — that played to about 15,000 screaming fans in Glendale two months ago. All said and done, “High School Musical,” which also won a couple of Emmy Awards, has proven to be one of Disney’s biggest breakaway successes of 2006.
Critics and fans call it the “Grease” of the iPod generation.
No wonder, then, that the movie’s live stage adaptation is proving to be one of the theatrical season’s hottest properties.
But what is unusual is who’s putting on the show.
Ironically, Disney — whose theatrical arm otherwise occupies itself with bigger-than-life, multimillion-dollar Broadway extrava- ganzas like “The Lion King,” “Aida,” “Beauty and the Beast” — isn’t eyeing the Great White Way. Not yet, at least.
And it’s not letting the country’s professional playhouses have any exclusive piece of the pop pie.
Instead, the House of Mouse is granting rights to “High School Musical: On Stage!” (and a shorter, one-act version) largely to school drama clubs and amateur children’s playhouses.
A record-setting 2,000 amateur and scholastic groups will stage the show in 2007, according to Music Theatre International, which grants performing rights licenses to the show.
That’s why the Valley will see an unprecedented nine different productions of the show between now and June. And that’s only the most recent count. Requests keep flooding in, even as amateur groups are being asked to pay a premium to obtain the rights.
Up first is the fledgling Starlight Community Theater in Anthem (running through Saturday), followed by productions at Scottsdale’s Greasepaint Youtheatre (Friday through Feb. 25) and Ahwatukee Children’s Theatre at the end of the month. Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s version comes in August.
The biggest-budget version will come courtesy downtown Phoenix’s Valley Youth Theatre, which is scrambling to take the show and its cast in June to the Herberger Theater Center. (Meanwhile, Childsplay, Tempe’s nationally acclaimed theater for young audiences, is merely incorporating a staging of the musical into a spring youth workshop.)
Young thespians — and young wannabes — couldn’t be happier.
“The kids are crazy about it,” says Bobb Cooper, head of Valley Youth Theatre.
Cooper, like other Valley artistic directors, was introduced to the mouse-eared magic of this simple “Romeo and Juliet”-meets-“Footloose”-meets-“Grease” tale by his own child at home.
“About a year ago, maybe, my 15-year-old daughter was like, ‘You have to watch this,’ ” Cooper says.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I was cooking. I had no interest. She popped in the DVD, and I would glance over. And before I knew it, I was sitting there, watching it from start to finish.”
Cooper, like the other adults leading youth productions of “High School Musical,” say they’re taken by the simple message of the simple story line: Troy, a student basketball star, falls in love with the new girl, Gabrielle, who would rather star in the school’s upcoming musical production than join the academic decathlon team.
In the end, and through a series of syrupy ballads and hip-hoppy ensemble numbers, they’re able to balance the expectations of their peers and buck the notion that the school nerd and jock can’t be star performers as well.
“As cliquish as we are in society, and specifically in our schools,” says Jack Pauly, who’s producing Greasepaint’s production in Scottsdale, “it’s allowing people to step out of the status quo.”
Or, as 11-year-old Josh Hudeby, who plays Troy in Ahwatukee Children’s Theatre’s production, puts it: “It, like, tells people to not just do what they do, that you can do what you want to do.”
Steve Fickinger, vice president of licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions, says his group “worked at a breakneck pace” to get a stage production into schools and amateur youth theaters.
“It was always crystal clear that we would do this for the schools,” he says. “It’s for them, it should be done by them. Though we are a publicly held company and responsible to a bottom line, believe it or not, this was not a decision based solely on commerce.”
CATCHING THE HEAT
For Fickinger, what’s important about seeing “High School Musical” find its way to the stage is that it’s capitalizing on television pop culture as a way to pull children into real, live theaters.
“Everybody’s trying to ensure there’s a next generation of theatergoer,” he says. “You hope they have a great experience, you hope they walk away going, ‘I want to see another show.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s a Disney show. Just go see a show, please.”
(Above and beyond what result the show has at the box office — Pauly, for one, expects this to be Greasepaint’s highest-grossing show to date — the Valley’s youth artistic directors are just excited to see something bringing out to audition an increasing number of girls and — that theatrical minority until studly Troy came along — boys.)
What gave Fickinger a sense of urgency in whipping up the stage adaptation, he says, was largely the same reason Valley theaters are acting fast to mount the show midway through their already-planned seasons:
Nobody knows for sure, frankly, just how long the popularity of “High School Musical” could last.
“One is never certain,” Fickinger says, “of the shelf life of a phenomenon.”
‘High School Musical’ tidbits
• “High School Musical” was shot in Salt Lake City, in and around East High School. A sequel will begin shooting there later this year.
• Zac Efron, who plays basketball star Troy, was the center of minor controversy when it was revealed another singer, Andrew Seely, provided most of the character’s vocals. Efron, 19, is now co-starring in John Waters’ new film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Hairspray.” He’s expected to perform his own vocals.
• What’s different about the stage version of “High School Musical”? Two new tunes, a few background or solo numbers rearranged as duets between leads Troy and Gabrielle, more musicals-friendly musical arrangements, and the addition of a new character to serve as narrator.
• Steve Fickinger, vice president of licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions, won’t say if there’s a “High School Musical” Broadway production in the works, but he did say there was an early staged reading of the script with Broadway actors. “They did a show one week in June,” Fickinger says, “and it played beautifully.”