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High School Joy

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
August 20, 2007

Raymond J. Keating

If only high school had been as enjoyable as portrayed in "High School Musical," which hit the Disney Channel in January 2006, and in the sequel "High School Musical 2" that debuted on Friday, August 17.

Dating back to the early days of Hollywood, the most beloved musicals tend to be idealized, feel good affairs. It's enjoyable escapism. That's the case with both "HSM" and "HSM2."

Movie reviewers in leading newspapers, though, tend not to be big fans of positive, relatively wholesome and innocent entertainment. Throw in some catchy pop tunes and high-energy dancing, and one can just hear Sharpay-like screams of revulsion emanating from critics.

For example, reviewer Anita Gates served up a snarky piece on "High School Musical" in the January 20, 2006, New York Times. Gates was simply disgusted, calling the television movie "dippy" and "treacle," and the directing influences "unfathomable."

As it turned out, young children, tweens, teens and, yes, parents had quite different views. Commercial success swamped the negative reviews. On August 17, The Wall Street Journal noted that "High School Musical" cost a mere $4.2 million to make, and has raked in more than $100 million in profits. The report added: "That movie has so far drawn 200 million TV viewers world-wide and spawned a DVD, a chart-topping CD, a concert tour, school productions, a stage musical, a book series, and stationary." Various estimates peg the value of "High School Musical" at between $500 million and more than $1 billion.

Reviews of "High School Musical 2" seem a little more careful given the wild success of the first film. But the negativism is unmistakable. In Newsday, Diane Werts wrote: "And how uber-slick the entire production is, afraid to stray to anything unexpected, unwilling to attempt even a moment of subtlety or character depth, satisfied to merely feed the tween need for more of the same. 'HSM2' succeeds as what it's designed to be - a good-enough for the kids, clean enough for the parents, profitable enough for Disney."

Even if all of this were true (which I do not think is the case), at the great risk of being labeled a Neanderthal, I have to ask: What's so bad about that?

And again, the initial numbers point to continued success with "HSM2." USA Today reported that on its first night, the sequel "exceeded the original's 7.8 million viewers - as well as everything else that has ever aired on basic cable. HSM2's preliminary 17.2 million viewers set not only a Nielsen cable record for total viewers, but also records for TV entertainment among the young: 6.1 million viewers ages 6-11, and 5.9 million more ages 9-14 (the latter ranking behind only 2004's Super Bowl)."

Of course, it's not just reviewers who dislike this kind of entertainment. After all, Hollywood largely discarded the fun, positive musical decades ago.

But Disney saw an opportunity. What reviewers and much of Hollywood have missed is that a market exists for joyful, safe entertainment with a positive message - if it is done well. Both "HSM" and "HSM2" accomplish exactly this.

When it comes to a musical, the music and dancing perhaps matter most.

The "HSM" soundtrack ranked number one in 2006. "Stick to the Status Quo" and "We're All in This Together" are foot stompers, and "Start of Something New" builds nicely. As for the dancing, the basketball number for "Get'cha Head in the Game" is inventive, and a light comedic touch can be found elsewhere as well.

"HSM2" gets the music and dancing right as well. "What Time Is It" gets people on their feet and singing. "Fabulous" is a catchy throwback with amusing lines, including: "Iced tea imported from England / Lifeguards imported from Spain / Towels imported from Turkey / And turkey imported from Maine." And "You Are the Music in Me" is a neat up-tempo love song. Meanwhile, dancing in the kitchen to "Work This Out," on the baseball field in "West Side Story"-fashion to "I Don't Dance," and poolside with a "Beach Party" flavor to "All for One" work well.

What about the characters? Well, this is a musical, so it's not surprising that the characters fit certain types. While some are over the top, each offers enough to get the audience to care about them, including the basketball star and good guy Troy Bolton (Zac Efron); the pretty and nice math wiz Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens); the spoiled head of the drama club Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) and her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel); along with Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Taylor (Monique Coleman), best friends of Troy and Gabriella, respectively.

And finally, the story? This is where common ground is found among kids and parents.

The stories are simple and formulaic, but not stupid. With any musical, of course, there also is the requirement that the audience be willing to suspend reality. After all, people do not usually break into song and dance in school, poolside or on the baseball diamond.

But it is the message and the means that should be embraced. Here is one of the few franchises that's wildly popular among young people, yet is in no way offensive, whether in terms of language, sex or violence. In fact, it's downright positive. "HSM" was about overcoming peer pressure, following your dreams, putting aside stereotypes, and respecting others. "HSM2" hits on keeping promises, staying true to your values and friends, and not succumbing to self-absorption.

The "High School Musical" phenomenon, therefore, is encouraging when it comes to our youth, the music business and Hollywood. There's talk about making a "High School Musical 3" for theatrical release. It reportedly would be set in the senior prom and graduation. I'm betting the focus will not be on partying, drinking and prom sex, and that might just have a positive effect.

In the end, the popularity of "High School Musical" seems rooted in a common desire among the young to have a positive, rewarding and fun high school experience, and in a similar wish by parents for their children. So, a "High School Musical 3" is well worth looking forward to for this reason alone - not to mention the next batch of catchy dance tunes.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which features several articles on Harry Potter -- "Harry Potter and Christian Allegory," "Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Fundamentalists," "Considering the Anti-Potters," and "Prince Caspian and Harry Potter." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Posted: 21-Aug-07



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