Eight-year-old Kailey Fraher has an homage to “High School Musical” on the wall of her Gilbert bedroom. Her sisters are wild about the movie, as well. “At first, we watched it for the music and the dancing,” says Kailey. “Then we learned the dances, from the ‘High School Musical’ Dance-Along,” adds Elise, 10.
“We like the singing, too. It has my favorite girls,” says 5-year-old Leah.
“We also have the CDs,” says Elise. “And the posters. And the pajamas. And the toothbrush.”
Modern entertainment allows kids virtually everywhere. They can be video game car thieves, living fast, dying hard, and leaving lots of damage behind. Or they can rent, buy or surf to movies that will take them everywhere from crime scenes to galaxies far, far away. With so many places for young imaginations to travel, why are so many of them going to high school?
“ ‘High School Musical’ has my favorite things,” says Elise. “Singing and dancing. And basketball.”
THE ‘OMIGOD!’ NETWORK
When “High School Musical” premiered last year on the Disney Channel, it set off a wellspring of preteen and adolescent enthusiasm that made it a stand-alone industry. There’s the original movie. The remixed movie. The concert tour. The ice show. The stage version, performed at thousands of regional theaters. The merchandise line. The concert tour CD released on Tuesday.
“They’re also coming out with ‘High School Musical 2’ this summer. It’s on the Web,” says Kailey.
Elise nods: “You can log on, and vote and make suggestions on it.”
“High School Musical” is kind of a no-kill “Romeo and Juliet,” with peer pressure substituting for Montagues and Capulets. Troy and Gabriella, star-crossed teens, meet reluctantly on a karaoke stage during winter break. In song, they discover a hidden wealth of talent, and a surprising connection to each other. But their relationship threatens the peace at clique-driven East High, where Troy, a basketball star, is considered too cool for the stage and whiz-kid Gabriella should be too serious for footlights. Will pressure force Troy and Gabriella to deny themselves and each other? Or will auditions for the coming musical bring them back together? The kids sort it out with a little angst, a lot of singing and a host of high-energy production numbers.
“The first time I saw it, I. Loved. It,” says Stephanie Stamas with a chuckle. The Scottsdale actress plays Gabriella in Valley Youth Theatre’s stage production of “High School Musical,” which opens June 8 at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater Center.
But Stamas, 15, says she first connected to the movie as a fan.
“I had a basketball game that night,” she recalls. “So one of my friends taped it and we went over to her house after and watched it. And we were just, ‘Oh my God, this is so good!’ ” Brian Wible, 16, who plays Ryan in the production, said a Disney movie set in high school wasn’t new, “but this one had singing and dancing and hip-hop in it.”
“And it also has really fun characters,” says Katie Wilson. The 16-yearold Mesan plays Sharpay, the musical’s snooty drama queen, in the local production. “These are people that (high schoolers) can relate to. Not that you would actually relate to Sharpay, but you would know who that person is at your school.”
With dance moves to envy, a singalong musical score and familiar slate of characters, “High School Musical’s” popularity spread quickly along the “Omigod!” network. “It was just so fun,” says Stamas. “If someone hadn’t seen it, I’d say: ‘Oh, my God! Are you kidding?’ Because this was one of the greatest movies! That was how it got so popular so soon.”
DANCING OUT OF STEREOTYPES
Recognizable characters are only part of its success. At a time when schools are regarded as flash points for educational and social controversies, “High School Musical” borrows a page from “Grease,” making high school a self-contained society, where issues of identity and acceptance loom large.
“It’s an extreme version of high school,” says Wible. “But it still makes sense. Like, how people have to deal with cliques, and all of that.” The story speaks, sings and dances to issues that are prominent on young people’s radar.
“My daughter was 15 when she told me, ‘Dad, you have to watch this,’ ” says Bobb Cooper. So Cooper, the producing artistic director of Valley Youth Theatre, gave it a glance to oblige her.
“The song that kept me watching was ‘Stick to the Status Quo,’ where kids of different cliques were confessing to a broader range of ideas and interests than they were supposed to have,” he says. “I thought, what a good song for young people.”
Heather Fraher, Elise’s mom, agrees: “I really like it because it tells kids, ‘You can be anything you want. You don’t have to fit the pattern of some clique,’ ” she says. “Elise is at the age now where she’s just getting into sports. I don’t want her thinking she can’t be open to piano, or dance, just because she likes athletics.”
It also doesn’t hurt that “High School Musical” wraps its themes in charming actors, singable songs and nimble choreography.
“It probably is different from real high school,” says Kailey Fraher.
“Different in some ways,” Elise tells her. “But you still have sports and drama in high schools.”
“But in real high school, they probably don’t let you stand on the tables,” says Kailey.
The Valley Youth Theatre actors, who split their time between singing and nonsinging high schools, acknowledge those differences and a few more. But the basic story, and its ideas, still connect. “It tells (kids) they can have fun in high school, and enjoy it,” says Wible.
“Kids can still relate to it,” says Stamas. “And they understand what it says about being yourself.”
Katie Wilson agrees. “And it’s awesome,” she says, laughing.