High School Musical is a class phenomenon

Emma Lee If you’re the parent or grandparent of children of a certain age, you probably feel like Troy and Gabriella are part of the family. As the stage version of High School Musical arrives in Norwich, EMMA LEE wonders how a TV movie became a multi million pound global phenomenon.

Emma Lee

It's the film that's become a multi-million pound phenomenon. But why? On paper, the plot of High School Musical is a story you've heard time and time again.

Boy (star basketball player Troy) meets girl (brainy and beautiful Gabriella). Boy and girl discover a love of singing and decide to audition for the school musical, sending ripples of discontent through their respective cliques - the Jocks and the Brainiacs.

Enter drama club president Sharpay (boo, hiss!) with a dastardly plan to ruin their chances of taking to the stage together, before, surprise surprise, the good guys win out.

So far, so familiar - and a bit cheesy.

But Disney's all-singing all-dancing made-for-TV movie, which first hit our screens in 2006 after first conquering America, has become a powerful brand.

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You can buy the DVD, the soundtrack CD, the duvet cover and the musical toothbrush… and now, it's on stage too.

Last night the national tour rolled into Norwich for a sold-out week-long run.

Countrywide, it's taken more than £9m in advance ticket sales, and it's set for the West End.

A second High School Musical TV film debuted last autumn and a third instalment is on its way later this year.

Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, who play sweethearts Troy and Gabriella, are global superstars.

And the figures speak for themselves - last year, High School Musical boosted Disney's overall income by almost 10pc.

So just what is its appeal?

“For someone who studies American popular culture, there's no way you can get away from High School Musical,” says Diane Negra, of UEA's School of Film and Television Studies.

“One of the things that makes it interesting is how incredibly merchandised it is.

“There's always a way to consume more of it - whether it's the soundtrack, the TV show, the stage show or even on ice. It's a staggering marketing achievement as much as anything else,” she says.

Prof Negra says that part of its appeal is that it's accessible.

“As they say in the movies, it's pre-sold. We've seen this kind of thing before in films like Grease and Dirty Dancing.”

But whereas the heroines of those films - Sandy and Baby - had bad-girl makeovers, you'd never catch any of the East High kids snogging or smoking behind the bike sheds.

Unlike, for example, the Oscar-nominated film Juno, about a pregnant schoolgirl who decides to give up her baby for adoption, Troy and Gabriella's school is a squeaky-clean fairytale version of the place where you're supposed to (but rarely do) spend the happiest days of your life.

“It's a wholesome depiction of youth and it comes at a time when we worry about how dangerous high schools have become, when kids have to walk through metal detectors to get to class and more and more parents in the US are home schooling their children so they don't get 'contaminated' by school,” says Prof Negra.

“Another interesting thing about this film is the belief that the performance self is the true self, which makes it very different to films that have come before,” she says.

It's easy to dismiss Disney films as feelgood froth.

But in an age when children, girls in particular, are becoming image conscious at a younger and younger age, at its heart High School Musical is about being true to yourself - for example, there's the boy who admits he loves to bake cakes -and having the courage to express yourself.

And it should go straight to the top of the class for that.

t High School Musical is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, until Saturday, February 16. The run is sold out. Call the theatre on 01603 630000 for details of any returns