Can Disney hit the high notes again with 'Musical' sequel?

by Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

13 August 2007


Like countless `tweens and teens around the globe, Rose Selland developed a huge crush on “High School Musical,” the Disney Channel mega-hit that bopped to the top of the television, DVD and music charts.

Oh, but that was so last year. Now she’s expecting even greater things from this week’s wildly anticipated sequel.

“It’s pretty important that it be big and amazing,” says the Campolindo High School student before revealing a personal wish list. Among the things she desperately desires from “High School Musical 2” are:

More upbeat songs. (A couple of tunes in the original were “too depressing.”)

Dance numbers that are “even more exciting.”

Additional screen time for her beloved Corbin Bleu.

A kiss between Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), the film’s Romeo-and-Juliet-like leads.

“That one is a must,” says an adamant Selland. “It needs to happen.”

Do you get the idea that there’s some pressure on the cast and crew to live up to the incredible success of the original multi-platform sensation? Yeah, just a little.

“We definitely feel the weight of expectations,” says the aforementioned Bleu during an interview in Beverly Hills. “High School Musical’ was able to capture lightning in a bottle and it’s really hard to do that twice. But, of course, everyone is expecting us to. Everyone wants No. 2 to be just as good, if not better, than the first.”

“I don’t know if it’s pressure as much as it is responsibility,” says Peter Barsocchini, a San Mateo native who penned the scripts for both films. “You definitely feel the responsibility because there are a lot of careers attached to this now and there are a lot of demanding fans to serve.”

Make that millions of demanding fans. According to Disney Channel data, the original feel-good film has been seen by 160 million viewers worldwide. The accompanying soundtrack, packed with catchy tunes, was the top-selling album of 2006 and the top-ranked DVD sold 400,000 units in its first day.

The movie has spawned a concert tour, an ice show, a best-selling series of junior novels, the TV sequel and a big-screen production slated for next year. The “High School Musical” franchise, which is projected to eventually generate $500 million in retail sales, has helped Disney get a leg up on Nickelodeon in the increasingly important competition to attract youthful viewers, and has bolstered its reputation as a factory adept at churning out the next generation of fresh-faced stars.

Perhaps even more impressive, “High School Musical” has pulled off a minor miracle by turning on traditionally ambivalent youngsters to the stage. More than 2,000 high schools and community theaters have licensed with Disney to stage their own productions, most of which have drawn overflow audition sessions.

“To me, that’s one of the great things to come out of all this. We’ve helped to make musicals cool and sought-after again,” says Efron, who recently appeared in the big-screen version of “Hairspray” and is set to star in a remake of “Footloose.”

So how could a modestly made and undeniably sappy movie about a hunky jock (Efron) and a straight-A bookworm (Hudgens) who break out of their respective teen cliques to establish romantic harmony on a school stage come to wield so much pop-cultural clout? Clearly, no one saw this one coming.

Well, director Kenny Ortega did. Sort of. The Redwood City native who choreographed the 1987 big- screen musical smash “Dirty Dancing,” immediately sensed Patrick Swayze-and-Jennifer Grey-like chemistry between his two leads while shooting the original. He was also blown away by the exuberant work ethic displayed by his charismatic young cast.

As location shooting on the $4.2 million film wound down inside a high school gym in Salt Lake City, Ortega huddled with his budding stars and issued a few words of advice.

“I told them that I really feel we’re onto something special here and that if everyone else (on the project) makes the same investment that you have, your lives are going to be dramatically different at this time next year,” he recalls. “And then I told them to hold on to your hats, and to who you are - and don’t forget where it all started.” Apparently, they didn’t. When the cast reported, completely intact, for Round 2 in Utah, Ortega was thrilled to see that their gung-ho verve and team spirit was still burning brightly.

“Amazingly, they did hold onto their hats,” he says. “If there were any egos, they were certainly checked miles away from our doors.”

And that’s a good thing, too, because the bar was dramatically raised for the sequel. Not only did some of the actors figure more prominently in the plot, the new song-and-dance sequences were much more labor-intensive.

“They certainly kicked my `Dancing With the Stars’ butt,” says cast member Monique Coleman, referring to her experience on the ABC reality show. “The numbers were so much harder this time.”

Even Bleu, considered the best dancer among the bunch, was humbled by the challenge. While shooting a number called “I Don’t Dance” with 200 bat-wielding extras on a baseball field, he got conked on the head with a ball three times.

“It’s bad enough that you’re mixing acting with dancing and singing all at once. But then you throw sports into it and it’s incredibly difficult - especially for me,” says Bleu who admittedly is no Barry Bonds.

Barsocchini felt the strain as well. The writer, who as a youngster covered sports and music for the San Mateo Times, experienced a rare bit of nirvana when Disney green-lit his first draft of “High School Musical.” But when sequel time arrived, the corporate scrutiny was intensified and Barsocchini found himself cranking out a dozen drafts of the script. And those preproduction meetings that were attended by one or two executives for the original? Now as many as 10 suits typically showed up.

“The first time around I didn’t try to write a hit. I just wanted to write something my 10-year-old daughter would enjoy,” he says. “But suddenly, this is big business. It got a little daunting at times.”

Barsocchini’s gut told him to keep things simple and write what felt familiar. His follow-up tale shifts the setting from East High School to the posh Lava Springs country club, where Troy and Gabriella land low-end summer jobs. But trouble is afoot as the film’s chief antagonist, drama queen Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), schemes to drive a wedge between the lovebirds.

“As a kid, I got some work as a caddy and a busboy at a country club,” says Barsocchini. “So I knew that world. I knew the sort of `Upstairs, Downstairs’ aspect of it. Also, as much as we loved East High, we wanted to get to a different place and see how the characters react away from school.”

As for the music, Barsocchini says the production team approached it as if putting together an iPod collection.

“When I was young, we would listen to `Sgt. Pepper’ from beginning to end,” he says. “Kids today experience music in a totally different way. They experience a story involving music as if it were a playlist.”

But will it all the efforts add up to another blast of “High School Musical”-mania? After watching the original “at least dozen times” and learning the lyrics by heart, Selland is certainly ready for the start of something new.

On Friday, she and her pal, Ali Schreiner, plan to get an early start to the evening by playing a “High School Musical” board game and once again grooving to the soundtrack. Then they’ll hunker down in the living room for the sequel.

“I’m just a little worried that it’s not going to be quite as good,” Selland says. “Regardless, though, it’s going to be big.”

Especially if Troy and Gabriella wind up sharing that kiss.

+ + +


The Disney Channel has re-aired “High School Musical” like seven billion times, but if you’ve somehow missed out, here’s a refresher course that will prep you for the sequel:

The original ended with Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) resisting the urge to “stick to the status quo” and landing the lead roles in East High School’s musical. In the process, they thwart the sabotage efforts of longtime thespian Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and her twin bother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel).

In the sequel, it’s time for summer vacation, and a scheming Sharpay uses her dad’s connections to get Troy a job at a posh country club - and a shot at a basketball scholarship. But there’s a catch: Troy will have to turn his back on his friends and pair up with Sharpay in a duet at the resort’s annual talent show. Now he must decide where his loyalties lie.

+ + +


Troy Bolton (Zac Efron): A basketball team captain with a talent for singing and a big crush on Gabriella.

Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens): An academic standout who overcame her shyness to make beautiful music with Troy.

Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale): A daughter of wealthy parents and an arrogant drama diva accustomed to getting everything she wants.

Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel): Sharpay’s twin brother and usual talent-show partner. Is he ready to assert his independence?

Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu): Troy’s buddy and member of the Wildcats’ championship basketball team. Has a thing for Taylor.

Taylor McKessie (Monique Coleman): The science-club leader and Gabriella’s BFF. Didn’t like jocks until Chad asked her out.

+ + +


Ready to run down some “High School Musical” facts and figures? Get’cha head in the game and do the math:

7 million - Dollars budgeted for “High School Musical 2” (the original was made for $4.2 million).

2,000 - U.S. schools and community theaters that have licensed to do “HSM” stage productions.

100 + - Countries in which “HSM” has been televised.

42 - Cities visited on the sold-out “HSM” concert tour.

18 - The age of Corbin Bleu, the youngest member of the cast.

9 - New songs featured in the sequel.

8 - The age Vanessa Hudgens began appearing in stage productions.

2 - Emmy Awards won by “HSM” (best children’s program and best choreography).

1 - The ranking held by the “HSM” soundtrack in album sales for 2006. (3.7 million units sold).

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