We’re Still Suffering From How Bad ‘High School Musical’ Was

high school musical

For many, High School Musical was the first real signal of a true shift in Disney Channel programming. By 2006, the once plucky, experimental network had found more success in streamlined sitcoms like That’s So Raven and Suite Life of Zack and Cody than they had ever found with previous shows. This, of course paved the way for a persistent, familiar formula seen in almost all subsequent Disney Channel features, even to this day.

You might find this formula to be a good thing. Perhaps you enjoy the shows currently broadcasted on that channel, or you might be neutral at best. I’m not going to try to change your mind, but suffice to say that the numerous people who have a distaste for what the channel has become are both wrong and right.

Disney Channel shows have always been great for their time. If you look back at some of their supposedly best projects, you’ll find that they haven’t aged well at all and are actually a lot worse than you remember. Time does that sort of thing. But what I’m arguing is that even in 2006, Disney’s first smash hit movie was a terribly harmful film, and for many reasons.

Put more simply, High School Musical was and probably still is the worst thing ever produced by the Disney Channel. Not in terms of quality and production value, but certainly when it comes to how the Disney Channel Original Movie impacted the countless people who’ve watched it over the last 10 years. How it shaped its fans, for example.

high school musical

This is hard to argue, for sure, because on its surface, High School Musical doesn’t seem all that bad, right? The names of the songs say it all: Start something new! Get your head in the game! We’re all in this together.

Yet the titles of each song send a different message in the subtext. And watching the movie as a whole, you’ll start to see that a specific, alarming set of beliefs are being pushed onto these characters. Let’s back up and recap the film.

The movie begins by introducing us to Troy Bolton (played by Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (played by Vanessa Hudgens) just as they’re getting introduced to each other during holiday break. They have a song number meet-cute before going their separate ways, only to meet again at the start of a new semester because it miraculously turns out that Gabriella is now attending the same high school as Troy…even though they met by coincidence somewhere else.

If this sounds at all familiar, that’s because High School Musical was originally meant to be a remake/sequel of Grease in the late 90s, featuring the children of the original movie’s characters. I’m not joking. They couldn’t get the rights figured out, so Disney Channel ultimately decided to turn the script into one of their original movies made for television, with “High School Musical” as the working title. Apparently, they couldn’t come up with something better to name the darn thing, and the rest is history.

high school musical

Anyway, Troy and Gabriella both realize that they belong to different cliques: Troy is the basketball jock and Gabriella is the math nerd. But their bond through music becomes a quasi-reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, where their respective social circles clash over the future of these star-crossed lovers. Well, not really. The romance between Troy and Gabriella is persistently muted, with them often changing the subject to music instead of their own “relationship.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, it’s probably for the best — because it allows for more interesting drama between Troy and Gabriella, who have a decent amount of chemistry together to make the “we’re friends but want to be more” thing work fine. What really poisons this film is the introduction of the titular musical.

Troy and Gabriella decide to try out for the school musical. More specifically, the lead roles. The problem is that the school already has built-in performers who’ve starred in every production. And naturally, they’re the villains of this movie. Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel) are exceptionally talented, and for good reason. They’ve trained for years and actually want to turn their passion for theater into a career someday.

But it turns out that Troy and Gabriella, who barely even want to be in the musical and have no acting experience, are both selected for callbacks. Even though they were late to the audition in the first place, by the way. It’s a decision that rightfully upsets Sharpay and Ryan, who have no conceivable idea why outsiders have skipped them over for what is essentially their most critical time to stand out in the industry. All because they can sing about as well as Sharpay and Ryan. And even that is arguable.

high school musical

The real reason Troy and Gabriella are selected is because of their chemistry when no one is watching. They’re late for their audition, so the drama teacher exerts her one moment of clarity by telling them they don’t deserve a role when they can’t respect the rules. Later, she listens in on them practicing a song and decides that earns them a callback. You know, despite the fact that neither of them performed when the pressure was on, which is what they’ll actually have to prove they can handle when on stage for real.

Their casting has nothing to do with how technically proficient they are at singing and acting. The worst thing about this is that neither character purports to have any interest whatsoever in theater beyond the attention ascribed to it. Allegedly, it’s because they simply love to sing, but that’s nonsense within the context of the film. Instead of having to work for the roles and pay their dues, the barely proficient are rewarded with what they really want: popularity.

And that is why High School Musical is actually harmful. The movie positions Sharpay and Ryan as sore losers without any real sympathy. Sharpay in particular goes to cartoonishly evil lengths to prevent the protagonists from even getting to their callbacks, just to ensure that the audience doesn’t root for her by mistake. This is a character who is supposed to be good at acting, yet the only skill she seems to have is concocting evil plans to make the audience hate her.

high school musical

The movie tries to say something about how you can be more than your designated clique, which is a great message, but the execution misses the mark completely. Sharpay and Ryan claim to be more upset over the fact that someone has entered the “theater clique,” rather than the more obvious pandering that’s going on with the drama teacher. And the students obsess over kids hanging out with other kids who are different, which is hardly a problem in any school. Yes, there are cliques, but there’s no widespread panic when a jock tries out for a musical or dates a girl with good grades.

And when the film finally tries to resolve the conflict between Sharpay/Ryan and Troy/Gabrielle, it comes down to Sharpay having a rapid change of heart that is shoehorned into the final scene. Sharpay never apologizes. Gabriella never apologizes. The film never tries to lend credence to why she acted so harshly in the first place. It just ends. Is it no wonder Sharpay essentially “resets” her attitude toward them with each subsequent movie, even fawning over Troy during the first sequel?

The ending song says “we’re all in this together to make our dreams come true.” OK, but only Troy and Gabriella’s dreams, which have only been a thing for a few weeks. The movie tells its viewers that a select group of people can and should be the best at everything, even when they’re actually not. The protagonists win everything. A superior movie could explore actual consequences for when teenagers stretch themselves thin and create anxiety for themselves, but not High School Musical. You’re guaranteed a victory just for trying. Even though Troy and Gabriella barely deserved to be understudies, they get to be the stars, win their championships, and smugly dance it off in the very end.

high school musical

The actual dialogue between Troy and Gabriella in the ending scene:

Gabriella: “Congratulations, Wildcat!”

Troy: “What about your team?!”

Gabriella: “We won, too!” 

This is why High School Musical was successful. It wasn’t just the manufactured-to-be-catchy song numbers. It definitely wasn’t the real message of the movie. It was how the movie made its viewers feel, and wrongly at that. The movie convinced many young children who aren’t in high school that simply trying without working earns them the same rewards as the people who actually have legitimate dreams and work hard for them.

For Troy and Gabriella, singing is a hobby, maybe, but nothing they’re at all serious about. The movie positions their plight above the characters who actually have dreams to turn music into a lifestyle (the ones who truly need these roles to get into the right schools), and the script demands them to be manipulative and evil in order to trick viewers into rooting for the privileged brats. It also clamors that high school is a mystical place where a select group of kids are so good at everything, their only real problems are choosing which thing they’re going to be best at.

In this movie, they choose everything. And the whole school worships them for it.

high school musical

There is a way to turn these concepts into a good movie. There’s room for an honest exploration of how the quick ascent of the privileged few can create sharp enemies. And there’s even a good story behind the idea of popular kids getting more popular, paralleling nicely with the concept of the rich getting richer. Shame on us for ever expecting something so useful, I suppose.

I wish I could ignore High School Musical and simply let it be. People like it, and I never have. But there’s something truly exploitative and lasting about what it tries to tell its audience in a way that’s simply ugly and perverse. It’s also allowed Disney Channel to get away with similar storytelling in other shows over the years, resulting in a channel that is currently so embedded in watered-down celebrity-obsessed pop culture, the children who watch it stand little chance of getting by unscathed.


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Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


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16 thoughts

  1. I’m 18 years old now so when HSM was out I was still young and stupid and liked stupid stuff. I liked the movies and I watched the sequel A LOT. Now I hate everything about this trilogy even most of the cast. But the thing is, it never really made feel anything or shaped up my personality. All I remember and all I ever cared about back then were the catchy songs. So it’s not as harmful as you suggest. It IS harmful in terms that it opened the way for more cheesy projects after it, but that’s it, its message was really obscured by the “Hey! Yay! Song! Smiles! Whoo!” nonsense that the audience only cared about because that’s the age it targeted. Right now, I’m interested in Sci-Fi, comic book,thriller and drama movies and I barely remember anything about HSM. And I think that’s the case with most of those who liked it back then. And most of us are ashamed we used to like something like this. So I disagree with you about it being harmful as it delivered a harmful message, but I agree with you on it being harmful to Disney.

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    1. He never said it was harmful to everyone, though. I certainly know people who fell in love with Disney’s High School fantasy so much that they hardly recovered during their actual teen years. We’re just swapping anecdotes, but yes, this girl went on believing that all of her dreams would come true at the last minute without preparation, and that the worst problems she’d come across would be what the kids of Camp Rock had to deal with (we’re too famous!) I kid you not, this same girl admitted to me during college that she wished she stopped watching Disney Channel by the time Hannah Montana showed up.

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      1. But you can’t blame Disney for this though, it seems like this girl wasn’t guided enough by her parents on how to deal with obstacles in life. Maybe HSM played a role in this but it’s not the first thing that deserves the blame.

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        1. Sure, ok, but the point isn’t to assign blame. It’s to point out how these movies contributed to a shared attitude created for the unlucky group of kids who DID raise themselves on Disney Channel, and yeah, Disney was a bit irresponsible with this movie.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sure. I agree. But it’s not THAT big of an impact in my opinion. I mean, if we apply this on everything else, you’ll find every movie harmful to teenagers. Spider-Man means you should just wait it out and a superpower will change your life. Batman/Iron Man mean money is everything. These character deliver various messages but it’s what you receive that matters. The right message of Spider-Man is with great power comes great responsibility but another one may get a wrong message. You get what I’m saying?

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            1. I don’t disagree, and I suspect Jon isn’t trying to say HSM is really all that harmful on a huge scale. I didn’t get that from the write up anyway. I would argue, though, that some pieces of entertainment are more harmful than others, which I think is the point. I think it’s worthwhile to point out the HUGE audience these movies gathered and arguably exploited without getting called out until years later. Sure, you can pull bad messaging from just about ANY movie, but HSM wears its bad lessons on its sleeves which I think is a suitable difference.

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  2. Disney Channel did a number on me with a lot of their other stuff too. Teen Beach Movie, Camp Rock, Wizards of Waverly Place. You could write a book on how hamstrung their creative team is.

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  3. Never seen High School Musical, when it came out I was in the late teen rebellious against things like that stage. It’s crazy to hear that this could easily be the message taken from it. If I ever see it I doubt it’s something I will like.

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    1. I think you should watch the movie before you form an opinion like that. I actually like HSM. True, I’m still young enough for you to argue that I’m brainwashed like the rest of ’em. But it’s one of the better Disney Channel movies— I mean, it’s got a nice concept, the tunes are catchy, and Zach Efron is in it. The only bad thing (in my opinion) is that it’s a musical— charecters just jumping up, singing and dancing, is stupid.
      My point is, older folks can say it’s dumb and embarrassing, but it’s just that sort of thing— something to watch and love before you grow up.
      Just for the record, Jon, this article is a lot like your Snarcasm on “The Good Dinosour” Cinemasins video— both are about something you should just let go.

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      1. On the contrary, I love musicals. My favorite being Les Miserables, so the element of people singing doesn’t affect me. You are right though, I probably should actually see the movie before I make a jump call of whether I like it or not. I should probably say that it was just never something that really appealed to me more than everyone talking about it and the story still doesn’t appeal to me that much to make me want to see it.
        But if you really like them that’s awesome. Glad you really enjoy the movie. Would you recommend seeing it? What are your highlights for it? Maybe you’ll make me into a fan 😄

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  4. Well my history with the movie is a bit weird when it came out I was a kid but I really didn’t care about it till one day my teacher made my class do a dance number from the movie for an school activity and back then I had to buy the soundtrack in order to practice, and after hearing the songs I felt curious to watch the movie and I liked the love story the rest I didn’t really understood as most of it was the songs and they were in English and my home language isn’t English and I barely understood the language, I watched the sequels and to be fair the stories and characters are way improved specially in the third movie

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  5. I think you’re missing a key piece of information here. This is Sharpay’s 18th school production, which implies that she will probably get more in the future even if she doesn’t get this one lead. This isn’t even in their final year, and her family’s wealth surely helped her get to this point and will help push her career forwards. Granted even if she wants to get opportunities based on merit alone, her resume and a supporting role in this production could still let her get it. Another message the film states is to try new things and seek new opportunities. While our two leads may, in your eyes, not deserve the parts, Disney, the fairytale studio it is, shows the best possible outcome for their heroes as can be. As for the message of “you don’t have to put in the work to get the reward” I don’t think it’s in there. The two leads have to come out of their shells to audition. And after they do get it, you see them having rehearsals and their other commitments and how to prioritize the two, and then finding a solution to the problem created by the villains. While it’s glossed over a lot, it is still present in the film. Granted I watched High School Musical first as an eight year old, but like most eight year olds, I got to a real high school and learned the importance of hard work. Even occasionally, like Sharpay, didn’t get what I was after no matter the hours I put in. So to me, while the movie is super cliché, it didn’t install in me, as well as most kids the notion that everything should be handed to me just because I showed up. And if anyone does believe that, then they’ve yet to earn anything in the real world anyway and are probably learning the need for hard work.

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  6. I love this more serious post and I completely agree with you. As a former High School, now College teacher, I can promise you that students seriously think that turning in anything (anything) “deserves” an A. If they don’t get one it’s “not fair,” even if the assignment is too short, poorly executed, or plagiarized. There’s so little emphasis on hard work now, and it shows.

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