The stats are astounding: a top-rated TV movie that spawns Billboard's best-selling album and a flock of the most heavily downloaded singles on iTunes. High School Musical is a multimedia phenomenon for the Disney Channel, which no one older than 11 will admit to watching.
The film's success, in many airings since its January debut, has led Disney to retool it as a stage musical that will be licensed for local productions, beginning this fall. More important, the HSM mania may mark a torch-passing from one generation to the next. Puberty is suddenly geriatric; for marketers, tweens are the new teens. Entertainment entrepreneurs have realized the truth of a maxim as pertinent to education as to commerce: Get them while they're young, when they can be instilled with values, not simply reinforced with prejudices.
As if to validate the decade's least likely retro trend musicals! opening in theaters today is Take the Lead, a gritty-weepie drama, "inspired by a true story," starring Antonio Banderas as a do-gooder teaching ballroom dancing to disaffected Harlem high schoolers. A few more of these, and nice could become a genre.
On television, it already has. American Idol, beneath the contestants' naked ambition and buckets of flop-sweat, and Simon Snide's eviscerating bitchiness, is reacquainting the country with its glorious musical past. One week, everyone must sing a Cole Porter tune; the next, '50s rock 'n roll is the genre. All right, the performers don't take their vocalizing cues from the swingin' precision of Ella Fitzgerald, the hiccupping innocence and intensity of Buddy Holly. Instead, they sound indentured to the wildly mannerist melodramatics of Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. ("Just sing the damned song," my friend George Grizzard has been known to shout at his TV.) But at least the performers, and the show's mammoth audience, are exposed to the Great American Songbook, pre-Eminem, pre-Titanic.
Similarly, last summer's hit show Dancing With the Stars served as a remedial lesson in the notion of danse a deux. To 21st century kids, pairs dancing must at first have seemed as bizarre and uncool an activity as synchronized swimming. For a couple of decades, dance has been self-expression, of an orgiastic, onanistic sort, not connection and communion with a partner of a different gender. Yet the show demonstrated, as Take the Lead does, the blend of precision and passion in an expert dance number. One girl in Take the Lead, watching a couple execute a hot tango, marvels that "It's like sex on hardwood." The contestants on Dancing With the Stars often lacked polish. But look, ma, they're sort-of dancing, in a way she might remember with appreciative nostalgia.
For small-screen nostalgiacs, I'll add a final blast of trivia. These two shows had ancestors in TV's Stone Age. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was a competition of little-known singers getting the fragrance of national publicity (Patsy Cline was a contestant who became a star after appearing there). And Arthur Murray's Dance Party showcased the terpsichoreal skills of the dour impresario, his wife Katherine and a host of graceful semi-pros. From the talents displayed way back then came not only American Idol and Dancing With the Stars but their movie siblings, High School Musical and Take the Lead.
STICKING IT TO THE STATUS QUO
High School Musical: the very title, proudly generic, cues you to the movie's embrace of antique cliches. So does the plot. Troy (Zac Efron, a cutie who manages to channel both Michael J, Fox and David Cassidy in their early adorable years) is the resident Anglo basketball star we said it was a fantasy and Gabrielle (Vanessa Anne Hutchinson, from the Soledad O'Brien breed of smiling semi-hispanics) is the new brainiac, at a school that might as well be called Rainbow Coalition High. The hero and heroine's best friends are African-American; there's a Hollywood demographer's smattering of other ethnicities; and everyone is cheerfully color-blind.
Instead of racial tensions, the conflicts here are tribal: classroom cliques of jocks, nerds, skateboarders, cheerleaders. The movie suggests that, by junior year, kids are pigeon-holed in their groups, afraid to explore other, ornery dreams. Like white-collar wage slaves, but 30 years too early, they are undergoing a mid-teen crisis. The received wisdom (voiced in the most irresistible of the movie's nine radio-friendly songs) is to "Stick to the stuff you know... Stick to the status quo." Yet a few kids harbor subversive ambitions. The inner Troy wants to try out for the school musical, and another hoopster has a forbidden love for baking. One boy secretly plays the cello.
This, we hear the South Park kids muttering, is terminally gay. And HSM is certainly gay as in happy, perky, shiny. (Even the Goths wear pastels.) But the movie, directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega, is really about daring to emerge from social stereotypes and crawl into a movie time capsule, where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland fixed up the old barn and, presto, put on a show. Which is only about as gay as... well, as South Park, which often breaks into Broadway-worthy songs composed by Trey Parker, possibly the last heterosexual to write tuneful parodies of Richard Rodgers and Jerry Bock. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see South Park take on HSM in its current season.