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The juggernaut that is Disney's 'High School Musical' returns

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Friday night, the monster returns. That would be the buoyant, zippy, singing-and-dancing monster known, seemingly, to every teen and tweener on the planet as "High School Musical."

This time, it's "High School Musical 2," or "HSM2," as anyone cool calls it, and when it premieres Friday on the Disney Channel (at 8 p.m. EDT), it will come with a tiny bit more attention than the first go-round.

The original appeared on the Disney Channel in January 2006 with zero fanfare and small expectations. Then it simply exploded, sweeping across youth culture - younger division - with astounding speed, force and good cheer.

It was the top-selling album of 2006 and the top-selling DVD. That DVD sold 400,000 copies in the first day and 7.8 million so far. More than 7 million CDs have been sold, fans have purchased 4.5 million books, schools across America have staged more than 2,000 productions of "HSM" - including a couple local ones - and, according to Disney, the show's been seen by more than 170 million people in 100 countries.

There are plans for a feature film, there was a sold-out 42-city concert tour, and the company is developing an ice show. When you hit ice-show status - I'm not saying that's such a good thing - you know you've resonated.

So, yeah, fans are paying attention to "HSM2." Will that matter? Probably not. The look and the feel just continue on, the dance numbers are only bigger, the creative team is the same, and the entire crew of attractive, charming stars is back.

The sequel's story is rooted in the themes that made "HSM" that rare item - a G-rated blockbuster. The core of this little fable hits where kids live - getting accepted and being yourself. In "HSM," the jock, Troy (Zac Efron), connects with the smart girl, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), and they both navigate peer pressure and a slew of obstacles to star in the school play.

They are cool because they're doing what they love. Real life, of course, is a tad more complicated. But that's one part of the magic of "HSM" - it's wish fulfillment with peppy music.

It's been called the "Grease" for the next generation, but its lineage traces back even farther, to all the "Beach Party" movies nearly a half century ago. It's the old story where love, music and the girl and boy from opposite worlds win out in the end, and it all happens with a beat you can dance to.

In "HSM2," the gang is facing the start of summer before their senior year. The mega-diva Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) is still trying to pry Troy away from Gabriella, so she gets him a job at her dad's country club. Troy then gets jobs there for his friends, the club has a talent show, and singing and dancing ensue.

If life for the East High gang hasn't changed much, the real people starring in the movie are living a lot larger, though everyone involved - from the apparently genuinely nice kids, to executive producer Bill Borden and director Kenny Ortega - says the whole bunch still works hard and has the same disarming chemistry.

"This cast is indescribable in terms of their passion, their commitment, their capability. They are extraordinary," Ortega told TV critics during a Beverly Hills press conference last month. "They raised the bar on this project and on me."

That's a good sign for the franchise and for the young people involved, because opportunity and celebrity have been raining down on them.

Efron stars in the feature film "Hairspray" and is in talks to front the remake of "Footloose." Lucas Grabeel (Ryan) and Corbin Bleu (Chad) made films of their own; Tisdale, Hudgens and Bleu recorded albums, and Monique Coleman (Taylor) was on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

But to the person, there is no attitude, no self-absorption, none of the vanity or faux importance that radiates off so many young celebs in Hollywood.

"I have so much respect for Disney and for the Disney Channel and the opportunities that I've been given because of it," Coleman told TV critics. "I was really sort of leery of how far was too far to go. This is such a special thing. Why would you want to ruin that?"

Grabeel said he's marking items off his things-to-do-before-you-die list because of "HSM," including performing in front of 65,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil. And Hudgens said she is just floored by it all.

"We were on `Good Morning America,' and we were performing in the middle of Times Square," Hudgens said. "I look up, and it was the first time I'd ever been to New York, and I'm looking at my surroundings, just realizing where I am. I'm still really blown away."

There were not a lot of people who predicted this kind of mammoth popularity for "HSM," but Borden said he was one of them.

When they were shooting the first film in Salt Lake City, the cast, producers and crew would all go eat together, and one night, at a place called Squatters, Borden tried to warn his stars of what was coming.

"We were sitting at this table with all these guys, and I looked over and said to them, `Do you realize that this is going to stop?'" he said. "`No one's coming up to you and no one's doing anything. Your guys' lives are going to change.'

"And they all look at me and go, `What? We're making a Disney Channel movie. What are you talking about?'"

Borden may have seen it coming, but he was one of the few. For "High School Musical 2," there is no such anonymity. Millions and millions of people worldwide are counting the seconds until it airs. That's the kind of success story Disney would make a movie about.

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