Pop Culture

Not just kids love ‘High School Musical’

Jessica Benjamin is a bit bashful about admitting this. But sometimes, driving by herself, this mother of four in suburban New York has been known to slip the “High School Musical” soundtrack into the CD player.

And Terri Welch, a mother in Houston, often catches herself alone singing “What Time Is It?” from “High School Musical 2,” the second installment of the Disney Channel megahit.

Thus these two women slip into a parallel dimension, one inhabited largely by tween-aged girls (roughly 6 to 13) and the people who live with them. This universe spans the globe, and its deities are Zac and Vanessa (or sometimes “Zanessa”) — two smiling teens as familiar and adored by inhabitants of this universe as they are unknown and irrelevant to those who don’t live there.

So foreign is the “High School Musical” franchise to those with no connection to the tween world that Kenneth Feld, co-producer of the new ice tour that kicks off this weekend, calls it “almost underground.” Tongue in cheek, of course. How many underground movements can claim the top-selling CD of 2006 and a global viewership of over 250 million? Or become the source of hundreds of amateur productions across the nation, not to mention untold numbers of preschool birthday parties?

Less than six weeks after the premiere of “High School Musical 2,” it appears the tween world is still passionate about Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay, Ryan and the rest of their pastel-colored fantasy world of secondary education. More than 17 million watched the first U.S. telecast. Since then it has reached nearly 49.8 million people across 12 countries, The Walt Disney Co. says.

Meanwhile, the sequel’s CD has sold 1.6 million copies in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The DVD isn’t out yet, but the first movie sold more than 8 million discs globally.

Lack of sex sellsSo it’s as good a time as any to ask: What makes this scrubbed-up, 21st-century “Grease” the continued cultural phenomenon it is? For one thing, parents say, it’s something the whole family can watch together — that entertains kids without either embarrassing their parents or making them want to jump off a bridge. (One word: Barney.)

But getting even more philosophical, it shows that maybe young people and their families want a little more fantasy and a little less reality.

“It’s something a lot of producers have missed,” says television historian Tim Brooks. Many of them “think it’s still the ‘60s. They think that because adults want to see sex, kids do, too. But a lot of kids don’t, especially girls. Most sitcoms on TV are really meant for adults.”

“This is a reminder that as American TV hurtles toward ever more explicitness, there is a market of people who don’t want any of that,” says Brooks, also an executive at Lifetime.

Before going further, a little HSM primer may be in order. The fictional East High is set in Albuquerque, but could be any American high school. There’s a pretty girl (Gabriella, math geek) and a dreamy guy (Troy, basketball star), but unlike “Grease,” there’s no spandex, no cigarettes, no drag racing and most of all, not a hint of sex. (There IS finally a kiss — in the sequel.)

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In this world with no rough edges, the geek gets the jock, the cliques melt like butter, and despite a few bumps, everyone gets along. Sound like any high school YOU went to? But never mind.

“I like the message of inclusion and diversity,” says Diane Kendall, a mother in Weston, Conn. “I like that at least a couple of the problems they face are real. And I like that they’re not all too beautiful.”

That remark definitely does not apply to Zac Efron, who plays Troy. Kendall’s daughter, 13-year-old Allie, says some might call Efron feminine-looking, “but he’s gorgeous, if you ask me.” Her door is plastered with a poster of the actor.

‘Good clean fun’In Jessica Benjamin’s home in Bronxville, N.Y., the two resident boys may be slightly less interested — or that’s what they say — but Grace, 13, and Faye, 4, both are certified “HSM” nuts.

“Maybe it’s just that it’s good clean fun,” says Benjamin. “And the singing and dancing — it’s a little bit of the ‘American Idol’ phenomenon. We make a bowl of popcorn, and we watch. It kind of harkens back to the Sunday night movie that everyone watched together.”

Of course, shrewd marketing by the Disney machine has played a huge role. “My cynical side says my daughters like it because of ceaseless promotion on the Disney Channel and Radio Disney,” says Welch, the Houston mother, whose girls are 6 and 7. But she likes it herself “because there’s no sex, no inappropriate behavior and no bad words.”

Not that a dose of harsh reality can’t rush in from time to time. Earlier this month, Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Gabriella, apologized for nude photos that surfaced on the Internet. Disney said quickly that it was sticking with the 18-year-old star despite her “lapse in judgment.” Hudgens, said to be dating Efron in real life (hence the name “Zanessa”), is still negotiating to appear in the “High School Musical 3” feature film.

One prominent pop culture analyst takes the somewhat radical view that HSM is a prism through which we can examine the 21st century. “Shake that thing up hard enough, and the secrets of our nation come pouring out,” says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.

Irony-free zoneSure, HSM is fairly well made and expertly marketed. But what really interests Thompson is its ttotal lack of irony, of hipness, of the “wiseguy” humor so prevalent today. “We are so deep into the age of irony,” Thompson says, “that when you encounter something as naive as ‘High School Musical,’ it’s almost avant-garde. It’s cutting edge!

“I would even go so far,” says Thompson, “as to call HSM subversive. “The fact that they pulled this off in 2007 is amazing.”

For Gary Marsh, president of the Disney Channel, what’s amazing is the international response to HSM. “The passion is global,” Marsh says. “The concert tour played to huge soccer stadiums in Latin America. The first movie attracted 50 million viewers in China.”

“We couldn’t have imagined that it would have caused this kind of phenomenon,” he says. “But that’s the alchemy of entertainment. You can’t set out to make a phenomenon.” But you can try darned hard to continue it. Disney is still negotiating, he added, with the current stars to appear in the “HSM 3” feature film.

Meanwhile, a national touring stage version opened in Detroit in June. Disney expects as many as 2,000 schools to produce licensed amateur stage productions by the end of this year. And the ice tour will consist of three companies, one of them international.

“This is the largest investment that my company has ever undertaken,” says Feld, co-producer of the ice tour. His Feld Entertainment, Inc. has produced Disney ice shows for 28 years.

Grace, the 13-year-old from New York, has seen the first film about 25 times. She echoes her mother’s view that “good clean fun” has its value. “I like the Lindsay Lohan drama as much as the next teenager,” she says. “But this is a breath of fresh air. There are times I think ‘Oh God, this is so stupid.’ But then I just keep watching it.”

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