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School's Out!

Disney's ultra-popular High School Musical finally hits the stage -- and it's not exactly the same as on television. logo
Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens
in Disney's High School Musical
(© Disney Productions)
A year ago, none of us knew it existed, let alone that it would turn out to be an iconic moment in both television and musical theater. But on January 20, 2006, the Disney Channel broadcast High School Musical, and the world took notice like never before. The TV-movie has now been televised more than a dozen times and has been seen at least once by more than three dozen million viewers, breaking ratings records not only here in America but also in Southeast Asia and Australia. The show also received Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children's Programming and Outstanding Choreography, among many other honors.

As if that weren't enough success, the soundtrack recording was the number one album of 2006, going triple platinum. The DVD of the show has sold more copies than any other TV movie ever. A concert tour with five of the film's cast members will soon have played 40 cities, and an ice show is on the way. And yes, High School Musical 2 is in the works, scheduled to air in August. (It's subtitled Sing It All, or Nothing!)

A Broadway production hasn't yet been planned, but who among us would be surprised if Disney were to announce it tomorrow? In the meantime, Music Theatre International, one of the four major licensing houses for professional and amateur rights, snapped up High School Musical. Now, productions are beginning to sprout faster than you can say "Uncle Walt"; for example, you can currently catch the show at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Minneapolis' Children's Theatre Collective or the BayWay Arts Center in East Islip, Long Island, and it will open at the Grove Theater in Upland, California later this week.

Those who are familiar with the television film and who attend one of these productions will discover a host of differences -- some subtle, some not-so-subtle -- between the two properties. Some of these changes may have to do with the fact that the show's script is not by the movie's screenwriter, Peter Barsocchini, but by playwright David Simpatico. In Simpatico's version, the story doesn't start at a ski-lodge in Colorado on New Year's Eve; instead, it begins on the first day of school after winter break at Albuquerque's East High. In this way, Simpatico wisely limits the stage version to eight sets: outside the school, a classroom, a locker-lined corridor, a gym with bleachers, a chemistry lab, the stage of a theater, a cafeteria, and a rooftop garden.

Starting at school means that Troy Bolton (played in the film by Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (played in the film by Vanessa Anne Hudgens) must recall in flashbacks their initial meeting -- when they were attracted to each other, dared to do a karaoke number together, and exchanged phone numbers (though neither called the other). Now they'll get a second chance, not only at a relationship but also at performing in the school musical, which is no longer called Twinkle Town. (Let's face it: No self-respecting teen actor would want to be in a show by that name.)

The renamed Juliet and Romeo is the brainchild of librettist-composer-lyricist Kelsi Neilson. Says drama teacher Ms. Darbus, "Kelsi has brilliantly swapped a tragic ending with a happy ending in which the two lovers both live and move to Albuquerque." Once again expecting to play the leads are Sharpay Evans, the school's reigning diva, and her twin brother/dance partner Ryan (who still isn't identified as gay, although we all know he is).

Yet Ryan isn't quite Sharpay's do-everything-I-say stooge. At story's end, he winds up telling Mrs. Darbus that "Sharpay lied to you because she was afraid of losing the part." And, believe it or not, even Cruella de Sharpay has a moment engineered to get some audience sympathy for her: "No one's going to like me if I'm just Sharpay," she tells her brother. "But on stage, I can be Juliet, I can be Annie Oakley, I can be anyone I want to be, not just dumb old Sharpay. I need something to make me fabulous, Ryan, I mean, come on, they named me after a flabby dog."

Ms. Darbus, too, no longer seems as one-dimensionally silly as she did in Barsocchini's work. As Simpatico says in his script's introduction, now "she is deeply devoted to her students and encourages them to risk in order to grow." When Alyson Reed reads this version, she's going to wish that the less loony lady is the one she could have played in the TV film. (Perhaps the change was made so as to not offend the real high school drama teachers who would actually be staging this script.)

Simpatico has added another character: Jack Scott, who does little but function as the kid who makes announcements over the school's public address system. He's characterized as a nerd who "becomes a hip, velvet- fogged DJ the moment he turns on the mic." Here's betting than, in many productions, his sex will be changed, since high schools are notoriously short of male actors. There's also a new scene, aimed to get laughs, in which the auditionees make fools of themselves by playing animals.

Otherwise, the script pretty slavishly follows the original template, with all the songs that American kids have come to know and love duly represented. There are still five big production numbers, as well as a frenetic dance for Darbus. Sharpay and Ryan still perform their technically proficient but emotionally vacuous audition piece. Finally, there's a mega-mix at show's end. Orchestra books are available for eight pieces, but if a drama director would like the school's marching band to be involved, books can be provided for all of them, too.

One last thing: Remember that the TV-movie had Sharpay call the diminutive Kelsi "My sawed-off-Sondheim." This was, without a doubt, the first time that many of the nation's teens and tweens ever heard the name of one of America's greatest musical theater songsmiths. The mind boggles at how many millions of kids must have clicked on the "Subtitle" feature on their DVD players as they cried out, "What did she call her?"

For better or worse, Simpatico dropped the line. It's funny that, while the line was given to the general public, it's been denied to the nation's drama club members. At least they might know Sondheim's name, if only for his work on his own Juliet and Romeo musical.

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