“High School Musical” and Teenage Oversimplification
By Graham Everhart
Every two years, something remarkable happens at Edmonds-Woodway: the drama program and the music program join forces to produce a musical. In 2017 it was Hairspray. This year it was High School Musical.
It’s so meta! Students put on a musical about students putting on a musical. High School Musical’s high school musical is Juliet and Romeo, a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with a feminist slant and a happy ending. Also, everyone moves to Albuquerque. Embattled protagonists Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez must juggle the demands of their extracurriculars while auditioning for the lead roles in Juliet and Romeo. Meanwhile…
- Sharpay and her brother Ryan, the antagonists, will stop at nothing to nab the roles for themselves.
- Troy’s basketball teammates pressure him to focus on the upcoming championship.
- Gabriella’s Science Club friends pressure her to focus on the upcoming science decathlon.
- Troy and Gabriella are falling in love.
- Sharpay has unrequited love for Troy.
- Troy’s teammate Zeke has unrequited love for Sharpay.
- Troy’s father (and basketball coach) feuds with the drama teacher.
- Sharpay bullies Kelsi, the introverted composer of Juliet and Romeo.
That’s a lot for a two-hour production to unpack. And despite Snowmageddon shuttering two crucial weeks of rehearsal, the cast, pit, and crew all performed phenomenally. Waiting 45 minutes for a $10 ticket was worth my willing suspension of disbelief. (Even the added seats were sold out.)
Co-stars Kaleb Nichols and Jaida Votolato both nailed the teen-pop vocal tropes that their “2000s kids can relate” roles demanded. Audrey Wilkinson was deeply, delightfully fake as Sharpay—she made her character appear so innocent that you knew she was guilty, so confident that you knew she was insecure. James Gamboa as Ryan was Sharpay’s perfectly matched foil. The abandoned dreams and high blood pressure of Henry Boekhoff’s basketball coach were palpable when he stared down Dorothea Koetje’s cynically idealist drama teacher. Johncen Oxales and Sarah Wechsler relentlessly tried to pull Troy back to his 3-pointers and Gabriela back to her differential equations. Zoey Sosinsky as Kelsi checked every box imaginable: she was creative, talented, friendly, hardworking, scruffy, clumsy, shy, and a pushover. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the empathy of the audience.
Above the circus stood Julia Kim as Jack, the school announcements boy and self-righteous arbiter of snark. Her over-the-top delivery of Jack’s lines scratched the surface of the fourth wall by poking fun at how contrived the circumstances were.
In other words, the actors did their best to uplift what I view as a flawed musical.
The show’s ostensible message is “just be yourself”, and it was a pioneer in making that phrase meaningless. The supporting characters embody it just fine: a jock comes out as a baker, and a skater comes out as a cellist. But the main characters don’t.
Sharpay’s two-second redemption arc at the end—in which all she does is accept a gift—doesn’t let us see her “real self” because she’s not given the opportunity to become that. And while Troy and Gabriella are supposed to be their “real selves” by the end, their “real selves” are too perfect. They’re even more unrealistic than their fake ones.
Troy is the basketball captain who’s also a naturally talented singer, the most popular boy in school, flawlessly kind to everyone, and sweetly romantic. Gabriella is a STEM prodigy who shares Troy’s vocal talent, kindness, romanticism, and skill on the slopes. Together, they are consummate paragons of academic, athletic, and artistic achievement who are nice enough that no one resents them for it!
How many hours of sleep do you think Gabriella, the full-IB wunderkind, gets every night?
Is being an overachiever the only way to be yourself?
Are students pressured to do so much that they need their schools to have power outages to get to everything on their to-do lists?
Fortunately, I’m composing a postmodern adaptation of High School Musical called Musical in a High School that answers those exact questions. I’ve been getting up at 5 AM for the past two years to work on it. Also, everyone moves to Flagstaff.