If you think High School Musical is still merely a generic term that describes a certain level of dramatic proficiency, you obviously have not come in contact with school kids in the last few months. In fact, High School Musical is a Disney Channel exclusive that is an actual old-fashioned musical about, well, putting on a high school musical.
The charm of Disney’s High School Musical is that it harkens back to the earliest days of Hollywood musicals, the good old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “hey, let’s put on a show” type of movie. The shame of this movie is the way it has been repackaged into a CD, then a special deluxe version CD, then a DVD and a special deluxe version DVD and repeated airings all in order to make a quick buck for Disney’s notoriously underpaid execs. The legacy of this movie may very well be the return of the classic musical.
It is really rather odd that musicals haven’t been able to stage a comeback in the last twenty or so years. And I’m not talking about musicals like Dirty Dancing where you basically just have a non-musical movie loaded with pop songs so that they can make an extra buck selling the soundtrack. I’m talking about classic Hollywood musicals where people who should not be singing nonetheles express themselves through song: people like cowboys and gangsters and Gibson Girls. What is odd is about it is that we now have a generation or two of young people raised on short form musicals.
I’m talking about music videos, of course. (The fact that so many of the most beloved music videos have been shot either all or partially in black and white, yet most people under 30 claim to never watch black and white movies is another topic entirely.) People in their teens and twenties and thirties today have grown up watching singers “act” in videos, portraying characters singing songs that, typically, have nothing to do with any story purportedly taking place. In other words, that whole bias against musicals being ridiculous because it has people breaking out into song has forever been sandblasted away. Everybody is used to that ridiculous notion. So, then, why haven’t musicals made a comeback?
I think the answer is all-too-simple and all-too-familiar: fear. Hollywood is, of course, known as this hotbed of liberalism, but it is a business after all, and one of the most conservative of all businesses. Movie producers think in one and only one fashion. The kind of movie that was number one at the box office this week will be green lighted next week for release next year. Hollywood distrusts taking chances. Even when it takes chances those chances are based entirely on conventional wisdom. And the conventional wisdom in Hollywood since around, oh say 1970, is that musicals are the kiss of death. They’re weird, they don’t bring in heterosexual males and if you are going to make one it either has to be a translation of a big Broadway hit or the characters have to be given a realistic reason for breaking into song.
It was thought that perhaps Chicago’s success would pave the way for a regeneration of this once proud genre. The problem is that Chicago was an anomaly. For one thing, it was more a vehicle for its stars than anything else. And for another, it was massively changed from its Broadway roots by way of translating the musical scenes into more acceptable “fantasy sequences.”
Disney’s High School Musical, while it didn’t completely do away with conventional wisdom, is nonetheless surprisingly rebelliousness. Especially when one considers that it is a product of the ultra-conventional Walt Disney Company. High School Musical still kept to the conventional wisdom in that it does place the majority of its singing scenes into the mouths of characters who are supposed to be good singers. But then again, the basketball sequence featuring “Get’cha Head in the Game” features an entire basketball team not only singing but engaging in choreographed dancing. And although many of the musical sequences have a valid reason for existing, others are of the old-fashioned “why are these people breaking out into song” type.
The incredible popularity of Disney’s High School Musical has cracked open the conventional wisdom regarding the acceptance by younger audiences of musicals. This thing isn’t just big; it’s a bone fide phenomenon. Not only has it spawned huge ratings and a number one soundtrack and DVD, but also plans for a sequel. And as if that weren’t enough, High School Musical is also being adapted for use as a high school musical in schools across America.
The musical is a legitimate art form. It possesses a natural surreal quality that turns even something as traditional as Oklahoma! into a movie that is more avant garde than Un Chien Andalou, the collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, infamous for its scene of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball open with a razor. In fact, the musical may be the most experimental and untraditional of all movie genres. Although often look at as old-fashioned, maybe the musical has been waiting until its audience was sophisticated enough to get it. And after twenty-five years of bizarre images set to music on MTV, maybe the time is ripe.
Disney’s High School Musical may at first glance seem far less avant-garde than something like, say, Freaky Friday or The Love Bug, but in fact it is a perfect representation of the best qualities of the musical. Not only is it fun and entertaining, but it’s unreal, dreamlike. Forget all about this nonsense of reality TV, which has about much to do with reality as my butt has to do with the economy of Nigeria. No movie, no matter how “realistic” is really much of a representation of reality. Why would anyone pay money or even sit down for free for two hours to watch what they can see merely by opening their doors? All film is about the spectacle of watching something unfold as if in a dream; some dreams are simply more realistic, that’s all.
A good musical-and make no mistake, Disney’s High School Musical is a good musical-is about taking the audience beyond reality. And in an age where a singing idol can allegedly be created by a has-been singer, a fat cipher, and a guy with no apparent talent whatever, I prefer to go beyond reality.