BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The most important threesomes in movie history? The Marx Brothers. John Ford’s cavalry trilogy. “The Godfather.” “Star Wars” (the first three). And “Lord of the Rings.”
Oh, and “High School Musical.”
Scoff if you must, but any 8-year-old with Disney Channel would simply tell you “Whatever” and then instruct you on the epic power, scope and feel-goodness of “HSM.” The original was first shown by Disney in 2006; the sequel (“HSM2,” 2007) only inflamed the masses. And there is a near-apocalyptic anticipation of Friday’s release of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.” The first in the series made for the big screen, “HSM3” is the culmination of what has introduced the musical form to a new generation, made it cool for boys to dance, and made its presence felt on a global scale.
“I was at an orphanage in Kenya,” said “HSM” director and choreographer Kenny Ortega, “and kids are yelling, ‘Say hello to Troy! Say hello to Gabriella!’”
In case you’re saying, like, “wha ... ?” Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez - portrayed yet again by the skyrocketing Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens - are the mainstays of the ongoing “HSM” story, which is set at Salt Lake City’s real-life East High (“the second biggest tourist attraction in Salt Lake,” Ortega said). The narrative involves all the conventions of the great Broadway shows: true love, jealousy, courage, friendships, betrayals, basketball; no Austrians, unfortunately, but music music music. And dancing dancing dancing.
But what’s also clear is that “High School Musical” has given its audience something else - something they want to belong to.
“Someone said to me, ‘I want to be in “High School Musical,’” Ortega said. “And I said, ‘Well, you’ll audition the next time we make one.’ And the person said, ‘NO, you don’t get it, I don’t want to be in the film. I want to live in ‘High School Musical!’”
To that fan, the three luckiest people in the world right now are Justin Martin, Matt Prokop and Jemma McKenzie-Brown - the three principal additions to the established “HSM” lineup. None were fans of musicals, much less “HSM” before joining Ortega’s team, but their tune has changed (why wouldn’t it?). They have a decided view of their film’s attraction.
“They look at it and think ‘I don’t have to be what other people expect me to be,’” said Prokop, 18, who plays Jimmy “The Rocket” Zara, charismatic goofball and fawning acolyte of Troy Bolton. “‘I don’t have to be a star of my basketball team, but I can be in a musical.’”
Troy Bolton, of course, does both.
“But in most movies,” Prokop said, “he’d pull up in a fancy sports car. Troy has a beat-up old blue truck.
“The audience wants to belong to us,” he added, “because there’s someone for everyone, lots of characters, and they’re so different. There really is someone for anyone to attach to.”
“There’s like 10,000 productions of ‘High School Musical’ going on in schools,” said UK native McKenzie-Brown, 14, who plays the scheming Tiara, “personal assistant” to the series’ resident evil, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). McKenzie-Brown may be overestimating, but not by much.
“It reaches out to the kids also because it gives them a positive thing to look up to,” said Martin, 14. “The ‘HSM’ message is ‘be whoever you want to be.’”
The movie is also, like its Broadway ancestors, drenched in fantasy. As the East High seniors live out their senior year, and don’t think they have the time to put on another song-laden extravaganza (don’t worry, they change their minds), all are facing Type-A dilemmas and premium problems: Should Gabriella go to Stanford early, and miss the musical? Will Zac go to Juilliard, or play basketball for Albuquerque University? (The idea that so many short white guys are getting basketball scholarships is one of the more fantastic elements of “HSM3”). No one’s going to Iraq; no one’s pregnant. And no one ever questions the orientation of the talented school choreographer, Ryan Evans (the talented Lucas Grabeel), despite his knee-high Alexander McQueen police boots, pink trousers and Rat Pack-y hat.
“We made the choice not to define him,” Ortega said, referring to himself and screenwriter Peter Barsocchini. “And I think I’ve had the most fun with him, of all the characters.”
Who knows what will happen to Ryan after high school? Ortega asked. “At that point, you’re not identified; I certainly wasn’t. I had a reporter in London who ripped his shirt open at the end of the interview and had a Troy Bolton basketball shirt on underneath, and he said, ‘I want to thank you for every single guy and girl out there who is trying to come to grips with who they are ...’ And no one has ever told us to stop. Not once has anyone raised a red flag on us.”
East High seems like a place where Tommy Tune would be the gym coach, Lincoln Kirsten would teach accounting, and the principal would be Louis B. Mayer. If those seem like old references - especially regarding a movie whose fan base is still getting its adult teeth - Ortega was mentored by Gene Kelly, and Barsocchini was a rock journalist during the era of Janis Joplin.
Aiming “HSM3” at the big screen has meant thinking on a grander scale, without straying too much from what has become the “HSM” formula.
“The last thing you want is for the kids who really love these characters and these movies to come in and say. ‘This isn’t what we wanted,” said Barsocchini, who said he’s already signed the contract for “HSM4.”
Ortega admitted that naivete is a big part of the alchemical process of “HSM,” which will be bringing its stars to the world, and in some cases, vice versa.
“I’ve never been out of the country,” said Prokop, who is ready to embark on promotional tours on behalf of his movie. “I grew up in Texas - you drive eight hours north, and you’re still in Texas; you drive eight hours south, and you’re still in Texas. ‘High School Musical’ is letting me see the world.”