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Chandra Lee Schwartz performs as Sharpay Evans during a performance of High School Musical at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, July 25, 2007. (William Rice/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
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When the smash 2006 TV movie “High School Musical” suddenly bust out of its box on the Disney Channel into the open, lucrative hearts of seemingly every tween girl in America, you’d have thought Disney Theatrical Productions would have been champing at the bit to turn the megahit into a Broadway show.


Wrong.


To work for Disney is to fall victim to stereotyping. That’s at least partly why the people who run Disney Theatricals - the iconic studio’s live-entertainment arm - are intensely preoccupied with artistic legitimacy. Despite the parent company’s famed commitment to populist products, the New York-based theatrical division always has preferred to surround itself with arty, top-shelf creative types from the high-culture realm.


Brilliantly, president and producer Thomas Schumacher turned to Julie Taymor, then an avant-garde figure known for Asian-influenced performance, to theatricalize “The Lion King.” “Beauty and the Beast,” which ended a whopping 13-year Broadway run Sunday, was the work of a slate of iconic Broadway artists. And last week in Denver, Schumacher oversaw the first preview performance of the long-awaited, Broadway-bound live version of “The Little Mermaid” under the direction of Francesca Zambello, who is known primarily for grand opera.


Don’t expect any tanks of water or Ursula flying around, “Peter Pan”-style. Much too cheap and obvious.


Yet despite the obvious theatrical viability of any movie themed around putting on a show, “High School Musical” didn’t easily fit that gestalt.


The wholesome structure of the material - cute, athletic boy and cute, brainiac girl find “Romeo-and-Juliet” love while performing in a school show and staying true to themselves - doesn’t exactly glisten with originality. The poppy tunes weren’t penned by a Broadway great - but by a committee of 12 songwriters, including David Lawrence, the son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and the composer of “American Pie 2.” And the familiar, high school setting wasn’t likely to set the imaginative minds of a Taymor-like artist all aflutter. No wildebeests or circles of life here. Just basketball, home rooms and the scholastic club.


“I said,” Schumacher recalls, “that the best thing to do with this property is to let kids do it.”


“People have expectations when they come to the theater to see a Disney show,” says Steve Fickinger, the vice president for licensing at Disney Theatricals. “I think you have to make sure that its going to be solid work, otherwise you’re taking people who’ve invested their heart and affection in you and disappointed them ... If you look at the animated films like `Little Mermaid,’ then you see films that very closely mirror Broadway musicals. The pedigrees that you have in those animated features are Broadway pedigrees.”


Put another way, “High School Musical” didn’t exactly have the words “Tony Award” pinned to its sweater.


Furthermore, there were a lot of ways to screw it up. And ever mindful of its reputation as a 10-ton cultural gorilla, Disney surely didn’t want to be accused of blowing a sweet thing out of proportion and killing the veracity and charm of the original kid-friendly movie.


And then there was the fad issue. Right after its first airing in January 2006, it was obvious that “High School Musical” (which scored 7.7 million viewers on its premiere broadcast) was going to be the biggest movie hit in the history of the Disney Channel - which already had released more than 60 movies. Sure, the DVD of the film sold more than 1 million copies - in less than a week - on its initial U.S. release in May 2006. But the target age group is notoriously fickle and, past experience shows, willing to switch its cultural loyalties on a dime and jilt its old loves.


“There was no way of knowing,” says Fickinger, “whether this would have the timeless appeal of the animated films. At first, we thought this might be more of a supernova.”


So, a choice was made.


“`High School Musical’ felt to us,” says Fickinger, summing it all up, “like something that was best enjoyed in a school auditorium.”


So that became the plan. Orchestrators and adaptors went to work to create a low-key, easy-to-perform version that schools and small community groups could license. Disney developed a taped, karaoke-style soundtrack that schools could use to do the show. Licenses were dispensed - including one to Chicago’s Emerald City Theater Company, which had requested the “amateur” rights.


And then the phone started to ring.


“Every two or three days, another producer from another professional theater would call,” Fickinger says. “I told them we probably weren’t going to go down that road, but that their interest was noted.”


Many of the callers were professional children’s theaters that wanted to broaden their audiences and knew a crowd-pleasing cash cow when they saw one on TV. And many were chagrined that the local middle school could do the show but not them.


Meanwhile, Disney had made a fortune by touring the original cast of the movie (in concert version) to arenas across the country. It had announced plans for “High School Musical 2” and “High School Musical 3,” with the latter destined for cinematic, not cable, release in early 2009. And the original movie had firmly established itself as an international brand.


“People were telling us,” says Richard Ross, president of the Disney Channel Worldwide and the main original force behind the global phenomenon, “we want as much of this as we can get and we want it in all kinds of different ways. The theatrical version was really the cherry on the top of a live-entertainment sundae.”


Demonstrably, “High School Musical” has been showing some staying power. “High School Musical is not a fad,” Ross says. “This movie was in the world 18 months ago now. And we put in on the 16th time last Sunday (July 29) ... and it was still the highest rated program on cable.”


With all this evidence in mind, those picky Disney theater people began to change their game plan.


Slowly.


“We decided to cherry pick five or six professional productions,” says Fickinger, “and let them do the show as long as they involved the community in some way and thus were staying true to our mission.”


John Jeffrey Martin performs as Troy Bolton during a performance of High School Musical at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, July 25, 2007. (William Rice/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

John Jeffrey Martin performs as Troy Bolton during a performance of High School Musical at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, July 25, 2007. (William Rice/Chicago Tribune/MCT)


The likes of the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre (a company for which Disney has a great deal of respect) got a nod. So did the Wichita Music Theatre. So did the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, along with a few others.


Chicago Children’s Theatre got rejected. Even at that early stage, Disney Theatricals wasn’t going to hand over a major market like Chicago to another professional entity.


But it did give a license to Atlanta’s Theatre of the Stars, which operates in the colossal, 4,678-seat Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. Theater of the Stars hired Jeff Calhoun, an established Broadway name who directed the last New York revival of “Grease,” to direct its version of the show.


“Frankly, I didn’t even know what `High School Musical’ was when I was offered the job,” Calhoun says. “I don’t have any kids. It wasn’t until I talked to my niece that I realized the impact the movie was having.”


But Calhoun took the gig. And when Disney executives attended opening night last January in Atlanta, they found something akin to what met the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965.


“The houselights went to half and the theater erupted,” says Calhoun. “I’d never seen anything like it.”


“The kids,” says Schumacher, “went out of their minds.”


That night in Atlanta, Fickinger says, most of the division’s worries about the artistic viability of the piece were put to rest. “Some TV scores die when you take them out of just piano and drums,” he says. “This one didn’t. The work felt really solid - and it had all the humor and the heart and pathos. It really was a very solid book musical and we all thought it played beautifully.”


The Fox Theater, of course, is not much different from the scores of similar roadhouses in cities across the country. And Calhoun had put together a show (featuring mostly young Equity actors) that easily could tour - assuming you nixed the marching bands and community kids who augmented the Atlanta smash. So what was there to lose?


Why not send “High School Musical” out on a 60-city tour, with a few tryout cities and then a grand official opening at Chicago’s LaSalle Bank Theatre on Aug. 1?


That’s exactly what happened. And on Wednesday night, the show made its big debut in front of Disney suits and rabid fans alike.


One irritation for Disney, of course, is the existence of those amateur licenses, handed out before plans were firmed up for the big tour.


You might have heard about one in Chicago.


Emerald City has been aggressively promoting its show, which is performed by area teenagers and, despite the amateur cast, is the biggest hit in Emerald City’s history. And in a city where the dividing line between professional and non-professional remains blurry and confusing to ticket buyers, there’s no question that from a business perspective Disney could have done without Emerald City cannibalizing its market with cheaper ticket prices.


Still, Disney said it would not have been right to renege on a pre-existing deal (even though Equity producers often do precisely that to amateur groups). “Contrary to what you might think, we’re really not the kind of company to go in with a big boot and stamp everyone else out,” Fickinger says. “We want them to succeed as well. We just want it made clear to the customer or theatergoer what kind of experience they are going to have.”


There were some issues with Emerald City, which had applied for an amateur license at the non-profit Victory Gardens Theatre, but then decided it wanted to do the show at the 440-seat Apollo Theatre, an established commercial venue. Disney objected and the show was confined to the non-profit, 300-seat Victory Gardens Greenhouse.


“They moved the venue and they weren’t allowed to move the venue,” says Fickinger. “We just asked them to follow the letter of the license they were granted.”


“They told us they considered the Apollo Theatre a commercial house, which it is, and so we agreed to do as they asked,” confirms Karen Cardarelli, Emerald City’s artistic director. “They were nice to work with us.”


As of last week, Cardarelli says, the entire run of Emerald City’s show was sold out.


“Just under 3,000 people will have seen our performance,” she says. “We could have sold twice that many seats.”


Disney, Cardarelli says, has not permitted any extensions.


Whether the flood of amateur productions will drown the big downtown show in Chicago and beyond remains to be seen. But Disney already has booked a 60-city tour. Might “High School Musical” be joining “Mary Poppins” on Broadway?


“There are no current plans,” says Schumacher. “New York is expensive.”


New York perceptions are also different. And it could well be that Disney would be smart not to push this one too far. And Disney Theatricals is nothing if not smart.


Then again, Schumacher says that several Broadway theater owners are eager to get their hands on their show, perhaps as a summer Broadway attraction, when it could be marketed as something distinct from a regular Broadway show, thus allowing Disney to have a Target to go with its branches of Bloomingdales.


“This really is a chance for us to build a new audience for the theater,” Schumacher says. “If you go and see `High School Musical’ when you’re 9, maybe you’ll come back and see `Lion King’ when you’re 18.”


And while there’s no doubt that Disney surely is enjoying the benefits of such a cheap-to-produce, multiplatform moneymaker, it’s hard to refute Disney’s argument that “High School Musical” is, really, all about kids.


“We live in a very complex world,” says Ross, who surely knows his audience. “But kids are still sitting in schools worried about their family, friends and grades and their ability to live up to their parents’ dreams. That’s what every kid in the entire world goes through. This is about experience and hope.”


“In `Grease,’” says Calhoun, “Sandy has to change to become accepted. In order to be embraced, she goes from being a nice girl to smoking cigarettes and sleeping around. In this show, you don’t have to change, you just have to be yourself and that’s enough. I’m proud to be associated with such a message.”


After he’s done in Chicago, Calhoun is headed to Florida to direct “High School Musical on Ice.”

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