High School Musical: Or, Artful Trope-Wrangling

High School Musical posterIn this season of festive frivolity (and guilty pleasures), what could be more frivolous than the Disney Channel TV movie “High School Musical”?

Yet there may be a few interesting words to say about it.

The Phenomenon

If by some chance you’re not familiar with HSM, the Wikipedia article has a detailed description of the production, plot, and characters.  You can brush up there; I’ll wait.

Since the early 1980s, the Disney Channel has produced a formidable list of original made-for-TV movies, generally aimed at a tween-to-teen audience.  Few of them make much impact on the general moviegoing public, though a number of actors and musicians have gotten their start in the “DCOM” venue.  But every now and then one finds something more substantial among the fluff.

Such surprise successes are not unknown among more adult movies.  No one expected Casablanca to become a film classic when it came out in 1942.  It’s A Wonderful Life, with disappointing results in its original 1946 release, became a beloved holiday heartwarmer in the 1970s.

Disney didn’t expect anything extraordinary from HSM, either.  But the movie was a whirlwind success in its target age group.  Disney, always ready to strike when the iron turns out to be hot, followed up the original HSM not only with the conventional TV sequel but also with a third episode that was released in theatres—“the first and only DCOM to have a theatrical sequel,” according to Wikipedia.

When HSM premiered in 2006, I had a daughter at the right age to be interested; that’s how I came to see the show.  But I was favorably impressed.  As lighthearted romantic fluff goes, this venture was pretty enjoyable.

Clearly, the HSM team did something right.

The Chemistry

High School Musical, karaoke scene, Troy and GabriellaA romantic comedy can’t work unless the couple appeals to us.  In this respect, HSM hits the right note from the initial meet-cute.  Teenage strangers Troy Bolton (basketball star) and Gabriella Montez (science-oriented A student) are propelled onstage at random by a boisterous karaoke crowd at a resort’s New Year’s Eve party.  By the usual musical-theatre convention, they sing the required duet perfectly, without any prompting, though they act as if they’re amateurs trying this for the first time.  We watch them gradually loosen up, exchange shy glances, and get into the song with enthusiasm.  It’s entirely adorable.  The song itself, with the refrain “This could be the start of something new,” fits neatly with the beginning of a relationship.

Romantic chemistry is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.  But I felt the actors and filmmakers did a good job of making the romantic interest both credible and enjoyable.  (To mention only one example of a film that fails in this respect:  Star Wars fans will wince in unison when reminded of the fact that the prequel trilogy requires us to treat Anakin and Padmé as heroes of an epic romance, but the actors have no chemistry whatsoever.)

The Tropes

HSM is a gallery of familiar tropes—but it does some interesting things with them.

The idea of star-crossed lovers whose groups are at odds goes back to Romeo and Juliet—or Pyramus and Thisbe.  Using the traditional high-school dichotomy of jocks and nerds to create this opposition makes the situation ripe for comedy.  But what makes HSM interesting is that there’s a third force involved:  the drama club.

While the sports championship and the scholastic decathlon preoccupy the basketball team and the brainy types, Troy and Gabriella are really trying to succeed at a third thing—trying out for the spring musical.  Their real opposition is the reigning drama queen, Sharpay, with her acquiescent brother and dance partner Ryan.  Having three factions in play complicates the standard “Two houses, both alike in dignity” plotline.  It also allows for a satisfying alliance of the sports and science factions at the climax, when they conspire to create simultaneous disruptions so that Troy and Gabriella can appear at the all-important (I’m trying to say that with a straight face) callback auditions.

High School Musical, creme bruleeSimilarly, the basic theme of the show is a classic (especially for teenagers) “do your own thing” or “be yourself” message.  But the three-party problem points this up in a slightly unexpected way.  Troy and Gabriella don’t need to recognize each other’s existing strengths; they’re each trying to do something that’s new to both of them.  The same theme works its way down through the minor characters.  In a song about sticking to the status quo, various people confess their unorthodox ambitions.  To me there seems to be something whimsically specific about a basketball player’s dream of cooking the perfect crème brulée, which becomes a running joke.

The HSM characters are typical high-school stereotypes, but with a little more to them.  They are, at least, multi-talented; and they’re capable (in the end) of appreciating each other’s disparate abilities.  It’s just enough of a spin to lift HSM out of the run of teenage comedies.

The Music

The musical numbers are pretty good pop-rock songs, IMHO.  The comic pieces are well done, and they’re carried off with great joie de vivre by the enthusiastic cast.  The love songs—“Start of Something New,” “What I’ve Been Looking For,” “Breaking Free”—are enjoyable enough that they’re worth listening to even aside from the video.  The big finale, “We’re All In This Together,” is just the kind of rousing, energetic closer one wants for an entertainment of this sort.


High School Musical, finaleThere are, of course, flaws.  Characters don’t always act consistently; for instance, the drama club moderator Miss Darbus is sometimes flagrantly biased in favor of her pet prodigies Sharpay and Ryan, while at other times she goes out of her way to give the newbies a fair chance.  The final wrap-up, in which everyone from all factions become friends (temporarily, until the next episode), is endearing but just too neat.

But to my mind, HSM succeeds at being good light entertainment—and that’s not something to sneeze at.  It can be harder to bring off a light comedy than to craft a drama or an action-adventure flick, just as it can be easier to broil a steak than to make a good soufflé.  (Or crème brulée, perhaps.)

Kelsi Nielsen, HSM's "composer"

Olesya Rulin as Kelsi Nielsen

I also have a particular fondness for HSM’s acknowledgement of the composer of the musical as an unsung hero.  The drama club’s musical is being written by a younger student, Kelsi Nielsen.  The senior drama people act superior with Kelsi, but Troy points out to her that in basketball terms she’s the “playmaker”—the one who makes everybody else look good.  That’s an especially satisfying observation to those of us whose activities lie more in the writing and composition areas than in onstage performance.  It’s another welcome subtlety I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in a casual Disney Channel production.

No one will mistake HSM for high drama.  But it’s undeniably fun, and it reminds us that even the most well-worn tropes can be fresh if you throw in a few new twists.


Looking Backward/Looking Forward

One of the things that distinguishes science fiction and fantasy is the direction they look to for greatness.  In SF, we expect things will be better and greater in the future than they are now.  In fantasy, the great days are behind us.


Both F&SF recognize that things change over time.  Empires rise and fall; discoveries are made and lost; human ability to control the environment expands or contracts.  Both of them help counterbalance our mental inertia and remind us that things will not always be as they are now.

Our present era is particularly alert to changeability.  “Disruption” is the watchword of today’s businesses, and Moore’s Law reminds us that technology can be expected to improve.  But the two kinds of literature tend to look in opposite directions.

The Bright Future

Modern science fiction started out by anticipating scientific and technological advances.  New inventions like the railroad and the telegraph suggested further developments like flight and advanced weaponry.  This is so obvious that we might overlook the key assumption—that we will know more, and be able to do more, as time goes on.

Brad Paisley, "Welcome to the Future"

Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”

The trend has a familiar resonance, after all, in our own experience.  As individuals grow up, they learn more and become more able.  Shouldn’t we expect society to do the same?  Stories of wonderful inventions and daring discoveries were the meat and drink of early modern SF.

Of course, “more powerful” does not automatically mean “better.”  But a future dystopia presented an extraordinary menace precisely because advanced technology or social change could allow a tyranny to expand its oppression.  The two-way television sets of Nineteen Eighty-Four made it possible for a government to observe its citizens’ private lives at any time.  Now that such surveillance is actually practical, we are grappling with the issues of privacy and security that Orwell’s novel raised hypothetically.

The notion of technological progress in SF was reinforced by the parallel of biological evolution.  Primitive forms of life, from one-celled microorganisms to dinosaurs, develop into today’s dominant humans; the future may see further evolution into some superhuman being.  While the idea of evolution by natural selection does not actually imply that later creatures are “better” than earlier ones—they are simply better adapted to recent conditions—it has been almost irresistible, in SF and elsewhere, to assume that later species are improvements on their predecessors.  (The traditional way of fudging this issue is to refer to the later creatures as “higher” forms of life, which suggests “better” without quite saying so.)

The Past Glories

In classic high fantasy, on the other hand, the present day tends to be presented as a come-down from the great days of old.  The Golden Age is in the past; we understand less, and can do less, than our predecessors.

The Silmarillion, coverThe archetypal example, of course, is The Lord of the Rings.  The War of the Ring (taking place in the “Third Age” of the world) is small potatoes by comparison to the immense conflicts of the First Age (depicted in The Silmarillion), no matter how cataclysmic it appears to those involved.  The heroes of the First Age are of legendary stature; Aragorn modestly points out that he is not a hero on the same scale as his ancestors Elendil and Isildur.  The most powerful weapons, such as Gandalf’s sword Glamdring, are handed down from an earlier era.  No one in the Third Age, we gather, could craft such weapons.  The downward trend even continues forward from the time of the story.  The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the Age of Men is coming, and we’re led to expect a gradually more mundane (if perhaps safer) world from which the colorful magic and variety of LotR are absent.

Robert Jordan’s immense fantasy series The Wheel of Time operates on the same pattern.  The story is set in a world where the vast powers and knowledge of the Age of Legends, three thousand years before, are largely lost.  The magic that remains is far less capable and much less well-understood than in ancient days.  Relics left over from the Age of Legends, if one can discover how to use them, have powers vastly greater than anything contemporary characters can exercise on their own.

Camber of Culdi cover

From the Deryni series

The earliest books in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series take place in a world where the magic-wielding Deryni have been largely pushed into hiding, and even those still active hardly understand their own powers.  Later on, Kurtz wrote prequel stories set in that earlier era when Deryni magic was in common use.  Seeing for the first time that earlier, more civilized era produced a fascinating effect—as did the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, decades after LotR.

In a similar way, when Lucasfilms released Episode I of Star Wars—the first of the prequels—we had a chance to see for ourselves what Episode IV had called “a more civilized age.”  The appearance of this fantasy trope reminds us that Star Wars has a good deal in common with high fantasy, despite its spaceships and droids.

There’s a psychological basis or resonance for fantasy’s backward gaze.  As children, we are wards of larger people whose knowledge and power far exceed our own.  We grow into adulthood ourselves eventually—but it’s still hard to feel equal to our parents’ generation, because we don’t feel all-powerful and all-knowing when we get there.  We’re too aware of our own limitations.  So as our parents move offstage and we take over the reins, there’s a vague sense that the Great Ones of the past are gone and the world has devolved upon our more modest powers.  Remember when you were a high-school freshman, and the seniors who ran clubs and activities seemed larger than life?  When you yourself were a senior, you weren’t larger than life; it was hard to feel equal to the older leaders you remember.

Mixing Things Up

Having noted this very broad general tendency—SF looks forward, fantasy looks back—we can say a word or two about the numerous exceptions and nuances.

You can get interesting results when you mix things up.  Another classic SF trope is the discovery that some great vanished civilization or species preceded our own.  They may seem godlike to us; our own people may even have considered them gods, if there was an overlap in time (see the first Thor movie).  Here we get some of the high-fantasy ambiance mixed in with regular futuristic SF tropes, for a distinctive overall feel—as, for example, in many of Andre Norton’s later novels.  We may learn from the Forerunners’ technology, or we may make use of it without understanding it, as in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series or Poul Anderson’s The Avatar.

If there’s a collapse of civilization, we ourselves may be the fabled precursors, whose lost technology must now be rediscovered.  Any number of post-apocalyptic stories take this tack.  In A.E. van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom, a far-future priesthood uses power sources and spacecraft it barely understands—until the genius Clane Linn appears on the scene.  SF can also show us decline from a lost golden age.  It’s significant, though, that the SF story tends to be set at a point where we’re going back onto an upward trend after the collapse, beginning to reinvent or recover lost arts and abilities.

Dragonflight coverAnne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern stories throw us a sort of double-reverse.  The opening story Dragonflight feels like a fantasy, with its dragons, its medieval-style technology, and its feudal society.  But the introduction makes clear that this is a human colony on another planet that has lost (or given up) its technology—the story is really science fiction.  When the characters begin reinventing devices like the telegraph, there’s a fascinating sense of acceleration and change that plays simultaneously against the fantasy atmosphere and the SF basis of the story.


Reading both fantasy and science fiction helps us gain a balanced perspective.  Great days may be behind us, in the Age of Legends.  They may be ahead of us, in the Age of Tomorrow.  Or even today may be a moment of greatness, by contrast to where we’ve come from or where we’re going.  As Carly Simon once put it, “these are the good old days.”