By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
With its Romeo and Juliet-inspired plotline about a troubled romance between teenagers from competing cliques, with its soaring love songs, its bold choreography evolving from the natural athleticism of the young cast and its timelessness as a piece of classic American musical theater, it's a show every caring parent should take children to see. It's called West Side Story, and it opens September 5 at Irving's Lyric Stage.
Meanwhile, kids who don't know any better, and moms and dads who should, are packing the house at Disney's High School Musical on Tour!, now at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Spun off from the 98-minute made-for-TV-movie on Disney's cable channel in 2006—watched by an estimated 37 million viewers over numerous repeats—this two-act whatsit is only the latest product arm of a heavily franchised juggernaut. Two TV sequels (the third, a "Senior Year" installment, is in production now), a 30-minute documentary by filmmaker Barbara Koppel and an ice show have helped build the HSM brand into an industry well beyond the usual T-shirts, backpacks, posters, plush toys, CDs and DVDs.
Funny how musicals are born these days. The old ones—South Pacific, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Camelot, The King & I, West Side Story—were inspired by books and plays, then were made into movies after their long Broadway runs. Disney flipped that model by creating Broadway shows from the studio's own films. Some have been monster hits: The Lion King, Beauty & the Beast, Mary Poppins. Others flopped, including the monstrous Tarzan musical, so ungawa-awful even tourists shunned it. The latest in the Disney onstage series, The Little Mermaid, with a piscine cast rolling around on Heelys to simulate swimming, has been doing OK business in New York despite taking critical harpoons.
Disney's High School Musical on Tour! is like all those other Disney musicals in all the wrong ways, and unlike them in all the wrong ways too. There are no puppets or abstract dance sequences as in Lion King and nothing like B&B's wisecracking teapot and waltzing candelabrum. No talking animals doing vaudeville shtick, nobody wired up to fly around the stage. Everything's fairly conventional, including the old-fashioned wagon-and-drop set pieces pushed around by actors in an almost constant whirl of scene changes. If anything, DHSMOT! runs so short on spectacle and enchantment that it threatens to look like an actual high school musical—except that most of the "kids" crowding the stage appear to be about 35.
What High School Musical does have in common with every other Disney vehicle is that it delivers the same vapid, destructive message: Wishes come true. Disney has built nearly a century's worth of entertainment on this dangerous myth and shows no sign of giving it up. They leave it to parents (or, if they abdicate their duty, then to therapists, public defenders and parole officers) to reveal the bitter truths of reality.
The characters in this show at least keep their wishes simple. School stud Troy Bolton (John Jeffrey Martin) wants to win the big basketball game. Gabriella Montez (Arielle Jacobs), a brainy mid-term transfer student, wishes she could fit in by getting the lead in the spring show, a "neo-feminist" adaptation called Juliet & Romeo. She might also be wishing there were more Hispanic teens at East High in Albuquerque, as she appears to be the only one enrolled. (And how do you know this fictional high school isn't in Texas? None of the girls at East High is pregnant.)
HSM wishes it were Grease, so it steals openly from its plot devices. Troy and Gabriella, like Danny and Sandy, meet over vacation and have their budding romance thwarted by their peers once they're back in school. Shy Gabriella gets in with the math team and the drama club, portrayed as a pack of fat/skinny/geeky/ugly losers. Troy's always surrounded by jocks and cheerleaders who think they rule the school. HSM gets some things right.
Crossing party lines is super-popular blond bitch-goddess Sharpay Evans (Heléne Yorke), a high-heeled hybrid bully/whore who expects to get all the boys she wants and to land the lead in school plays. She sees newcomer Gabriella as a threat to her domination and schemes to shove her out of the way. Trotting after evil Sharpay is twin brother Ryan (recent SMU grad Travis Waldschmidt at the performance reviewed), portrayed as a gay boy so finger-snapping swishy he lisps on the word "car."
What unfolds amid the over-amplified wailings of sound-alike pop tunes by 13 different composers isn't simply the HSM TV movie come to life. There's a new character or two. Some elements of the story have been exaggerated to make them read clearly from the cheap seats. But those things hardly matter to the scads of little fans who just want to breathe the same air as Troy and Gabriella. They're satisfied if the songs fall in the same order as the movie and the stage actors look passably like the originals. They do, and in one case, John Jeffrey Martin, sing and dance a whole lot better.
Make no mistake, however: This show is crap. Shiny, glossy, noisy crap whose sole purpose is to sell its young admirers more crap from the moment they walk in the door. Set up beside the huge souvenir stand in the lobby there's even a fake East High backdrop in front of which budding Gabriellas and Sharpays (and probably a few young Ryans) can have their portraits snapped. But dare to look closely at what High School Musical is really peddling, and you'll discover a lot of weird messages about what constitutes musical theater and what it's like to go to high school.
HSM was created on the false premise that the horrors of high school can be erased by wishing (and singing) them away. Beach Blanket movies offer a more accurate picture of teen life. Even as a fairy tale, the genre Disney does best, HSM is pumped full of ridiculous assumptions and offensive imagery. Slutty Sharpay wears hooker boots and envy-green stretch pants with an R-rated camel toe. Gay Ryan isn't just a sissy—he's a mincing, 16-year-old Paul Lynde. And anybody else notice that the only two black male students at East High are a jock and a guy dressed like Urkel?
The kids of East High sing "stick with the status quo" and "we can be anything we want to be" as they fling themselves around fake lockers and phony lunchroom tables in the production numbers. Those conflicting lyrics go right to the heart of what's so wrong with High School Musical. There's a joke early in the show that alludes to a quote by Karl Marx about individuals being sacrificed for the good of the whole. It's a half-assed explanation of the East High basketball team's all-for-one spirit. But a more accurate doctrine to apply to HSM comes from John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher-economist who argued in favor of an intellectual elite where only those in the top echelon of the class system are allowed individual expression.
This is the real story in High School Musical and perhaps of high school itself. Only a small number of those at the top of the heap actually enjoy the experience. Among East High's carefully constructed castes, only the pretty people—Troy and Gabriella—get to have it all and see their wishes and dreams come true. The rest of the proles are there merely to support the success of the elite, including Sharpay, whose most loyal servant is her own beat-down twin brother.
The show tries to pretend, in the most artless ways, that art brings equality to the masses. "We're All in This Together" is the big second act anthem sung by the jocks, freaks, squares and geeks as they join hands to celebrate the ascension of Gabriella and Troy. These two get to be the golden couple. Troy wins the big game. Gabriella leads the math team to triumph. The two play the leads in the school show, a rewritten piece of Shakespeare that lets Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after.
And another generation heads to high school thinking they'll be Troy or Gabriella and it will all be so much fun. They wish.