Let's put on a show 

Why Disney's High School Musical is most likely to succeed

Originating as a TV movie made for the Disney Channel, High School Musical celebrated breaking out of your niche. It seems somehow appropriate that the wholesome, unthreatening film has gone on to succeed in all possible venues as a multimedia pop phenomenon.

On Jan. 20 of 2006, High School Musical set a ratings record with its Disney Channel debut. The soundtrack went triple-platinum at a time when music fans increasingly downloaded new fare. The various DVD best sellers include karaoke and pop-up editions, and the franchise includes a daily High School Musical pep rally at Disney's California Adventure theme park. There's even a concert tour, with the original cast singing the hit songs, although it'll bypass the ATL.

In its typical overachieving fashion, High School Musical can't make its theatrical debut in a small way. Officially titled Disney's High School Musical, the stage adaptation makes its national debut beginning Friday, Jan. 12, at the Fox Theatre and is already one of the best-selling shows in the history of Atlanta's Theater of the Stars. Meanwhile, Woodstock's Towne Lake Arts Center is producing an amateur version of the show almost simultaneously with the Fox production.

The squeaky-clean story centers around puppy love between basketball star Troy (John Jeffrey Martin) and "brainiac" new girl, Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs), who consider trying out for East High's new musical despite pressure to remain in their respective cliques and, in the words of the most exuberant number, "Stick to the Status Quo." The official stage show is huge, featuring 28 professional actors, 12 local teen extras, 12 musicians in the orchestra pit and, at one point, about 60 people onstage. Towne Lake Art Center's smaller-scale show has a cast of 28, 17 of whom are actual high school students.

Nick Manos, managing director of Theater of the Stars, explains that after High School Musical became a cable hit last January, Disney decided to adapt the work for the stage in March and approved the final workshop production in July.

"We fought very hard to get the rights," Manos says. Disney gave Theater of the Stars the official go-ahead on Sept. 1. "That gave us 15 weeks to prepare the show, hire the creative team, start the advertising campaign -- essentially, to do a year's worth of work in four months."

Directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, the stage adaptation features more songs, expanded roles for some of the characters and longer production numbers. Manos estimates the show features twice as much musical performance as the movie, as the adaptation translates cinematic style for stage conventions.

"You can't have a full basketball game onstage," Manos says. "You can't have a number like 'When There Was Me & You,' which Gabriella sings during a three-minute walk through the hall."

If anything can be called the opposite of "edgy," High School Musical is it, although Manos suggests its wholesome quality is exactly what appeals to his 13-year-old daughter and the rest of its fan base: "She's looking for something safe to enjoy, a cool show that doesn't stretch boundaries. Kids get mixed messages today, and this has a clear message. There's no hint of sex, no hint of violence. Someone I know said, 'It's high school the way you wish it was.'"

Gay Grooms, director of Towne Lake Art Center's production, says she's been waking up with the show's songs in her head every morning and believes that the show's popularity lies in its simplicity: "The music is catchy and fun, the characters are familiar and current, and the storyline about finding your talents and pursuing your dreams is something that everyone can relate to."

Manos also points out that, despite its pop-music score and inclusion of cell phones and webcams in its storyline, "High School Musical is as traditional as they come. It's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers meets West Side Story meets Grease." With luck, Disney's High School Musical will expose techno-savvy, Shakespeare-phobic youngsters to live theater.

"I think there's no question that the show will attract people who've never been to the Fox," Manos says. "Teens and tweens may be 40 to 50 percent of its audience, but the traditional theater audience will be happy to see it, too."

Maybe playhouses and drama teachers across the country can use peer pressure to their benefit. Live theater -- all the cool people are doing it.

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