High School Musical was a thing about a decade ago, a cultural touchstone for the middle school kids I coached and taught back in the day. I remember watching the three movies - yes, all three - in an effort to understand what my players and students, primarily the female ones, were talking about. I found it fairly traditional gooey-Disney fare, an update to the Grease mythos of an improbable couple breaking down the stereotypical cliques of a decidedly airbrushed high school. The songs were catchy if banal, the whole thing very clearly - and obviously intentionally - designed as a stage production that just happened to be caught on film.
Fast forward ten years, and during a snowy Thanksgiving weekend we shared the films with our nearly 12- and 10-year old sons. To my surprise, they thoroughly enjoyed it. To my larger surprise, I enjoyed it even more this time myself. Adults remain largely absent or muted, Peanuts-style. Outside of the main duo, the supporting characters are largely cartoonish and underdrawn, inhabiting tropes for the mere purpose of upending them. A jock wants to cook, a big white girl is into hip hop, etc. There are some interesting journeys for some of those in the chorus - Ryan shows depth as a budding choreographer and master manipulator of rare integrity when he steps outside the shadow of his domineering twin sister (Sharpay, who satisfyingly never comes-to-Jesus, not really, remaining a narcissistic diva throughout). But on the whole, this story is about Gabriella and Troy. Mostly, to be frank, Troy.
Gabriella is a good girl, smart and talented and pretty. If this was 1950 she'd have been played by a freshly-scrubbed Natalie Wood, exuding innocent charm. The movies give her some challenges: discovering herself, finding her way in a new school, balancing love and ambition. But she rarely confronts any of these with the same raw, pulse-pounding emotion that Troy Bolton displays. Zac Efron brings a shockingly explosive charisma to the role, not unlike a young James Dean or Warren Beatty. He's without question the cock of the walk at East High, the resident colossus of the hardwood, captaining the juggernaut hoops squad. As with the best fictional princes, he's apparently unaware of his power and influence over his peers, cloaking himself in an aw-shucks humility that we can only attribute to his mother (his father - also his coach - is a bit more overbearing).
When Gabriella comes into his life, everything changes for Troy. Together they discover a love of song that informs their relationship and also complicates Troy's life. This is the central theme and conflict of the three-film arc: court or stage? He manages to strike a balance in the end, though he makes a choice I envy for its sweeping gall: I'll have it all, he says. I'll play and perform and study near my girlfriend. Man, I hope it works out, dude.
This is where the narrative strikes close to home for me. I tried to do it all, too. I displayed stunning avarice with my teenage world, devouring athletics and drama and music and academics and leadership and even a semblance of a social life. When you're 18, you never push back from the table when there's still something there to taste. Heading into my own Wildcat story, it was unsustainable. Young life may be about doing it all, but the older you get the harder that is to pull off. You have to begin to commit to the true passions in your life or you get left behind. There are no Renaissance men (or women). There are experts, and there are dilettantes. I fear that Troy Bolton is going to find this out, to his peril.
But it's a fun ride, watching young Troy before he knows all of this, before his hairline recedes and Gabriella meets someone better at Stanford and the dreams slowly fall away. That's really what these movies are about, after all - dreams. Finding yours, following it as long as you can, and being in the moment before the morning comes and the dreams die. Oh, and this is important - acknowledging and supporting the dreams of your friends and fellow travelers, whether there's what we expect or not. Because some dreams last longer than others, and some even come true. And as even Sharpay learns
in the end when her brother earns the Julliard scholarship she believed was hers by right, one of the best things in life is sincere happiness for the success of a loved one even amidst your own troubles.
After all, we're all in this together.