Why ‘High School Musical’ is an industry trailblazer and a comfort movie classic (2022)

Happy birthday, “High School Musical”! Sixteen years ago today, you were brought into the world on Disney Channel at 8 p.m. — 7 p.m. central. Now, you are as old as the high school juniors introduced in the first film. Oh, how time flies.

It all started with a meet-cute during a karaoke duet sung by Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) at a ski lodge holiday party. Then, the beautifully perfect coincidence of Gabriella transferring to Troy’s school, East High, brings them together on stage once again, this time for the spring musical auditions.

Jealous of the two newcomers for stealing her spotlight in the theater department, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) conspires to ruin their chances of landing the lead roles to get back at Troy and Gabriella for overstepping the boundaries of the status quo. Their sparks both on and off stage complicate Troy’s role as basketball captain and Gabriella’s involvement in the academic decathlon, with the two trying to balance the expectations set for them with their newfound passions and budding romance.

With the two succeeding films including just as many cheesy song-breaks and tender coming-of-age moments as the original, the full “HSM” trilogy successfully captured the hearts and raised the expectations of kids (a.k.a. me) who had little idea of what high school — not to mention, love — was actually like.

The three “High School Musical” films — my personal holy trinity — have been my go-to comfort movies for as long as I can remember. Whether I was pushing my way to the front row of the movie theater at the premieres, putting in my headphones at the start of a long road trip or curling up in the safety of my bedroom after a particularly overwhelming week, it is safe to say I have spent countless hours watching these movies and singing along to the soundtrack.

The very first song of the soundtrack — “The Start of Something New” — certainly set the tone for the trilogy that features so many moments of self-discovery, unfamiliar opportunities and blossoming relationships. Ironically, this song also set the tone for the role “High School Musical” played in the entertainment sphere in which their impact can still be seen all these years later.

“High School Musical” was a low budget film with many Hollywood unknowns that was originally considered a risk because there were not many notable successes of the same genre at the time. However, a new generation of fans grew to love live-action musicals because of the “HSM” franchise, and the massive success of the first film launched this production trend in film and in television. Both jukebox and original movie musicals like “Mamma Mia,” “Hairspray” and “Sweeney Todd” — in addition to musical TV series like “Glee” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — owe a portion of their success (and their existence too, in a way) to the “HSM” legacy and its large audience open to consuming similar entertainment.

When you look at how “High School Musical” influenced the Disney Channel at large, its impact is present in several notable titles that were childhood staples of mine and millions of others around my age.

Disney Channel Original Movies had such great momentum after “HSM” that it quickly led to the production of the “Camp Rock” franchise. Although its success did not top that of “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock” did kickstart the careers of Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. The lineup of DCOM musicals influenced by the “HSM” legacy also includes “Lemonade Mouth,” “Descendants” and “Teen Beach Movie,” to name a few.

I would be remiss to not mention “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” the highly anticipated television reboot of the trilogy whose first season came out in 2019. Against the (in hindsight, rather dramatic) advice of my friends who said anyone who loved the original movies would consider “HSMTMTS” a disgrace, I caved and binged the first season on Disney+ after YouTube recommended to me the Genius video of Olivia Rodrigo, who plays the lead character Nini in “HSMTMTS,” explaining the lyrics of “All I Want,” an original song she wrote for the series.

To my surprise, I did not hate the reboot. In fact, I enjoyed it far more than I thought it would, even though I might have been a tad older than the target audience. The mockumentary twist of students at East High performing “High School Musical” as their own high school musical included all the best concepts in the original films — cute coming-of-age moments, cliché high school romance and a perfect mix of classic “HSM” songs and reboot originals — in a way that was only a tiny bit cringier.

And did I openly cry on an airplane watching the finale of “HSMTMTS” season one? Yes, but we do not need to talk about it. It can stay between us. Anyways… Moving on…

The “HSM” trilogy is as cheesy as it is predictable, but that is the best, most comforting thing about it to me. It turned me into a hopeless romantic at such a young age, and I have had an embarrassingly hard time shedding the entirety of that naïve persona. When I spent my junior year New Year’s Eve midnight smushed in the backseat of an Uber and not singing karaoke with a guy as dreamy as Troy Bolton, I knew the rest of my high school experience was going to be an extreme disappointment in comparison the one I romanticized growing up watching the “HSM” films.

A lot can happen in 16 years, as I am sure we can all agree looking back at our own experiences growing up. Though the “High School Musical” movies themselves have remained the same, their audience and the realm of the entertainment industry in which they exist have experienced lasting change and influence that deserve, at the very least, a nod of recognition — regardless of what you think about “High School Musical,” the reboot or any of the DCOMs and live-action musicals that followed it.

I, on the other hand, will likely be a lifelong fan of director Kenny Ortega’s masterpieces and will absolutely force my kids to sit down and watch what I consider true classics. I will confess that I have a private playlist on Spotify with all of the “High School Musical” and reboot songs which I listen to whenever I am looking for a hit of nostalgia, but it will take a lot more than a Chronicle article that I do not know how many people read to admit to how many have shown up on my Spotify Wrapped over the years.

Growing up with this trilogy may have made me inherently naïve, but for the sake of my dignity and after writing this piece, I refuse to believe I am alone on that. Everyone has some favorite childhood show or movie that they still secretly like, and this is me unapologetically admitting mine. I might just have to re-download Disney+ to rewatch all the movies in celebration of themovie’s sweet 16. And, if you ask me, Jan. 20 should totally be a national holiday.

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