How High School Musical Conquered the World

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John Bramley / Disney

Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron in Disney's High School Musical 3: Senior Year

There may be someone on earth — a cloistered abbess, perhaps, or a Taliban soldier in a particularly remote post — who has yet to learn that High School Musical 3 opened last Friday. (It promptly leaped to the top of the U.S. box office, to the tune of a $42 million weekend take, and was No. 1 in each of the 19 international markets in which it opened.) But it's a rare human who hasn't at least heard of the Disney tween hit, given the passion of its fans and the zeal of Disney's promotion. What began two years ago as a made-for-cable kids' movie about American teens playing basketball and putting on a show has mushroomed into a global phenomenon, with followers from Caracas to Cambodia and a breathtaking range of platforms: a stage show, a concert tour, reality shows, a book-publishing series (50 million copies sold in 24 languages) and scores of tie-ins from breakfast cereals to Bible study guides.

The all-American love story between East High's basketball star, Troy, and math ace Gabriella has proven a triumph not just for Disney — which has reaped around $680 million in retail sales from the franchise to date — but for cultural globalization. In Latin America, HSM concerts play 50,000-seat stadiums. Swedes and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Poles have been among the millions to take in HSM: The Ice Tour, which has three worldwide touring companies. The stage show has played in dozens of cities worldwide, including Beirut, where it premiered during violent clashes. On HSM web forums, fans from Madagascar and Malta chat with Indonesians and Pakistanis. Director Kenny Ortega recently visited a Kenyan orphanage, where he was met with greetings for HSM sweethearts Troy and Gabriella. Says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide: "You'd have to be in a cave not to know about it."

Cynics can scoff at the product's bubblegum blandness, but that's precisely what's helped make HSM a global hit. The archetypes of Gabriella the brainy new girl in town, Troy the jock and Sharpay the diva travel well, as do the poppy songs and the themes of first love, cliques and friendship. Ross toured 25 regional Disney Channels around the globe two years ago, trying to convince them of HSM's potential. He met resistance "everywhere." But when Chinese or Russian marketers would fret that local viewers wouldn't get cheerleaders or basketball, he would drill down to human nature: "Do you have kids who play sport?" he'd ask. "Who are growing up and learning how to be themselves?" Evidently so: more than 255 million people around the world have seen the original HSM movie, and 293 million have seen its sequel. The album of High School Musical 2 went triple platinum in the U.S., quadruple platinum in Argentina and gold in Saudi Arabia.

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