Disney Channel has been making original movies since 1983, but it wasn’t until over two decades later in 2006 when they released High School Musical that Disney Channel tapped into its true potential. I’m a huge fan of DCOMs (as they’re more affectionately known), even the ones about a boy who turns into a mermaid at 13 years old, or a boy who has tremendous luck only to realize that his luck comes from a magic Irish coin. That is to say, even if the movie’s premise is ludicrous, the acting is painful, and the special effects are comical, I’m going to eat it up. For while, DCOMs were easy ways for the Disney company to appeal to their audiences without having to fork up a huge budget.
But High School Musical was different. Groundbreaking some may say. And those people would be right. High School Musical, directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega and written by Peter Barsocchini, broke through Disney Channel’s long running streak of cheap made-for-TV movies that would really only appeal to their target audience: young children. It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific reason why High School Musical was such a success. From the familiar plot pulling from classics like Romeo and Juliet and Grease, to Kenny Ortega’s tremendous choreography, High School Musical appeals to all audiences: young kids (like myself who was 6 at the time of its release), to young adults (like my current self who still rewatches the series every few months), to actual adults (like my mom who pretends to do something else while she’s actually watching). High School Musical is different precisely because it is not; it draws upon messages that have already been explored, but modernized the story with song and dance (and just enough cheese) to appeal to viewers of any age, and it’s no surprise that with a choreographer like Kenny Ortega and a young cast of rising teen heartthrobs (Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, Ashley Tisdale) that this movie would be a success. Its success, however, was record breaking.
To know High School Musical is to know “Stick to the Status Quo”, the film’s midway point chorus number. After Sharpay, Ryan, Chad and the rest of the basketball team find out that Gabriella and Troy have signed up for auditions, all the characters head into the cafeteria for lunch. The cafeteria, like in most teen movies, explains a lot. Every cliché clique sits with each other, and each have defining features and interests that separate them from other groups (see the Mean Girls cafeteria scene for reference). Despite being the place where all the students come together, the cafeteria is always divided. High School Musical stays true to this trope, and thus “Stick to the Status Quo” emerges. Sharpay, annoyed that there are outsiders infiltrating her drama club, claims that someone needs to tell Gabriella the rules. Ryan tees up the song by asking “And what are the rules?” (38:52) and the camera pans to the jocks where Zeke begins the song.
Zeke’s deep, dark secret is that he bakes, and all the jocks lose their minds. After telling Zeke to speak his mind, they shut him down immediately with the ever-famous “If you wanna be cool, follow one simple rule: don’t mess with the flow no, no. Stick to the status quo” (39:52). The song continues with each group—nerds, skaters, etc.— having their own Zeke who have a passion outside of their clique’s interests. The entire lunchroom breaks out into the same choreography and song, all declaring that sticking to what you know is what’s best for everyone.
Despite each group wanting to remain separate from the others, Ortega’s choreography displays an act of unity, with everyone joining together in the same choreography, but still keeps each group separate at their own table. The choreography is hard hitting and maybe a bit on the nose (like pointing to the basketball when the jocks sing “stick to the stuff you know”). But nonetheless, the choreography is a sign that things are starting to unravel in the school, and the stomps, fists in the air, and hands outstretched like asking “what on earth are you thinking” all compound on the lyrics to drive the point home: no one has ever broken out of their clique’s mold and the whole school might fall apart if they do.
As the song continues, the choreography has all the students dancing around their tables, and then eventually other tables, and soon enough, the people who are actively singing about keeping the status quo are hanging out with people in other cliques. A cheerleader is sitting in the lap of a skater, a nerd is doing a split leap off of the jock’s table. It’s madness! At least, that what Sharpay thinks. Sharpay seems to be the only one who is sticking to the stuff she knows. Watching over the lunchroom as the cliques begin to intermix, Sharpay starts singing and the other characters react. They go back to their tables as Sharpay tries to return things to normal (in her typical, Sharpay way, which is yelling at everyone).
Ortega’s over-the-top choreography, the very literal lyrics, and the delivery of each line cues audiences into the fact that the film is not actually pushing this message. It’s ridiculous to think that people can’t have multiple interests, but it’s exactly this ludicrous idea combined with a catchy tune and danceable choreography that makes “Stick to the Status Quo” so notable. It’s silly enough for kids to enjoy, it’s sweet enough for teens and adults to find comforting, and above all, it’s entertaining. Seeing an entire cafeteria dancing together in unison to a catchy song sung by a chorus of people makes viewers want to jump in and join. The fact that they can create a song with a terrible message and choreography that contradicts the lyrics speaks to Ortega’s genius: it’s just tongue-in-cheek enough for people to know it’s intentionally hypocritical and ridiculous without being so riddled with sarcasm that it seems insincere from the characters. We believe these characters feel this way, but the choreography hints that deep down, they not only have the ability, but the desire, to change the status quo.
Being at the almost halfway mark of the film, this number shows that these characters are stuck in their ways, but with almost an hour left, anyone who has even the faintest knowledge about Disney knows these issues will be resolved. After the basketball team and the scholastic decathalon team join forces to split up Troy and Gabriella, the school really does unravel, but not because people didn’t stick to the status quo, but because they did. Gabriella sings the melodramatic “When There Was Me and You” to a literal life size poster of Troy in the hallway and quits the decathalon.
Troy can’t make any jump shots. Suddenly, Gabriella and Troy’s friends realize that their scheme actually made things worse, and they do some self-reflecting. Realizing that doing a musical isn’t as horrifying as originally thought, they make amends with Troy and Gabriella. Now all that’s left is for Troy and Gabriella to make amends. Troy visits Gabriella’s balcony which connects directly to her bedroom and sings to her to apologize (side note: this movie gave me insanely high expectations about high school relationships, really setting me up for failure). If this explanation sounds rushed it’s because this all happens in like 10 minutes. It’s a Disney movie let’s not forget.
They all get back into the groove of things and prepare for their events: the basketball team’s game, the scholastic decathalon, and the callbacks. The basketball team gets a cake for the decathalon team, and, in response, they make a poster for the basketball team. Both groups give the drama club a present of boys with letters on their shirt spelling out Go Drama Club! Despite what “Stick to the Status Quo” established, it seems that the school is running smoothly, if not better than before, now that everyone has accepted people doing other things.
But oh no! Another problem has arisen! Sharpay convinced Ms. Darbus to reschedule the callbacks to the same day and time as both the game and the decathalon. I smell another scheme. Gabriella and Taylor, with their freaky genius minds, manage to rig the scoreboard and lights in the gym, stopping the game. They also create a mixture so foul smelling it clears out the decathalon competitors and audience. Gabriella, in her lab coat, and Troy, in his basketball uniform, rush into the theater hoping to make the callback. They’re late, Ms. Darbus gives them a hard time, but once she sees the crowds of people Troy and Gabriella have brought in, she agrees to let them audition.
“Breaking Free” (a very literal song title) shows the whole school coming together to support Troy and Gabriella. While their choreography on stage includes very innocent displays of affection like hand-holding and circling around each while staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, it’s the crowd’s choreography that shows a stark contrast to what we saw in “Stick to the Status Quo”. They stand up and clap along, intermixed in the auditorium seats. They’re no longer ironically all dancing together, but united together supporting their friends who are proving that you can be smart or good at basketball and also be great at singing.
Afterwards, we return to the basketball game where the Wildcats win and within the span of about two minutes, Chad asks Taylor out (another basketball-nerd romance), Sharpay and Ryan make amends with Gabriella, Kelsi and Jason share a moment (a basketball- drama club romance), and we break into the most famous number out of the entire movie: “We’re All in This Together”. Even more than “Breaking Free”, “We’re All in This Together” is the juxtaposition to “Stick to the Status Quo” where the whole school comes together for one final act of unity. The lyrics are clear, “We’re all in this together. And it shows when we stand, hand in hand, make our dreams come true” (1:33:30) and the choreography is spirited and dynamic. It acts as a celebration of winning the basketball game, but even more than that, it’s the culmination of all of the resolutions for the conflicts that arose throughout the film. The iconic downward fist bump to and over the head clap is ingrained within anyone born from the late 90s to the early 2000s.
The hands crossing over their faces as they sing “We’re all stars” and the claw hand movements during “Wildcats everywhere! Wave your hands up in the air” match the celebratory lyrics, giving the entire number a jovial and uplifting sentiment. It’s not as forceful as the choreography in “Stick to the Status Quo” but that’s because it’s not trying to force people into a box. This song is about letting people shine in their individuality, and the choreography accounts for that. Once again, Kenny Ortega’s choreography matches the lyrics in a way that will appeal to young children, but its simplicity is what also makes it timeless.
High School Musical doesn’t need some deep, complex message. After all, this is a movie targeted towards young children. It not only appeals to all audiences, but also stands the test of time, because it’s just plain fun. The characters retain their identifiable looks through costuming, which makes their unified and harmonious choreography all the more powerful. The movie isn’t advocating that everyone should be the same to get along, just like it wasn’t advocating for everyone to be different and separated. “We’re All in This Together” shows that everyone being different is what makes everyone special, and it doesn’t have to divide us. VERY cheesy, but it’s a message for every kid, a reminder for every teen, and an anthem for every adult.
High School Musical is the most successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever released and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got a great cast, catchy songs, dynamic and energetic choreography, and a not-too-cheesy message. Nothing about it (except maybe the clothes) has gone out of style, and its timelessness, attributed mainly to Kenny Ortega’s impressive choreography, makes every rewatch just as enjoyable as the first viewing, regardless of how old we get.