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‘High School Musical’ is a phenomenon

Disney Channel's smash has spawned karaoke version, hit soundtrack
/ Source: The Associated Press

The most he and his colleagues were expecting to do with "High School Musical," a song-and-dance romance that Disney executive Gary Marsh described as "`Grease' meets `Romeo and Juliet,'" was create a hit movie for kids.

What they did instead was unleash one of the biggest children's-television phenomenons since Fess Parker pulled on a coonskin cap and set a nation of kids to singing the "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" in the 1950s.

When "High School Musical" debuted on the Disney Channel on Jan. 20, it drew nearly eight million viewers, making it the top-rated basic-cable TV show that week. When it was repeated the next night, it drew more than six million viewers, according to the Nielsen Media Research group, making it the No. 2-rated cable show of the week.

Then it got bigger.

The broadcast of a karaoke version, for which people were encouraged to hold parties and sing along, was also a hit, and in March three videos from the movie were among the 12 most-popular downloads at the Apple iTunes Music Store.

The movie soundtrack, meanwhile, reached No. 10 on the Billboard pop-music charts two weeks after its release, hit No. 1 four weeks later and, after sliding down to No. 3, returned to the top spot again. At one point there were nine singles from the soundtrack on the chart in the same week.

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"I knew we had something when everybody around the office was asking for a copy of the CD before the movie came out, wanting to play it in their cars and take it home to their kids," said the upbeat Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide.

"But to have ever dreamed this could go to Number One on the Billboard chart — twice no less — that was beyond my wildest dreams. And I can dream pretty big," he added with a laugh.

So much so that plans for the sequel are already in the works. The DVD of the original will be released next month along with "High School Musical — the Novel." Also, a stage show is in the works and a touring concert version is a possibility.

Cell-phone ring tones from the movie are going on sale and there will be a back-to-back airing of the film and the karaoke version on Friday, 8 p.m. EDT. Then in June, Disney will export "High School Musical" to its cable channels in 23 other countries, including Taiwan, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Spain and Germany.

Which raises the question: What is all the fuss about?

"What I like about it is that it shows people making friends and trying out new things. I also liked the parts where they were dancing," said 9-year-old Lexi Resch of Arcadia, Calif., who added sheepishly that she has even sung and danced along to the karaoke version.

She is not alone in her enthusiasm. When some kids watching a Little League baseball game in suburban Los Angeles were surveyed recently, every hand shot up when they were asked if they had seen the show.

"I watched it a lot of times. I lost count how many, but I'm going to be watching it more," said 6-year-old Megan Lewis.

It has been noted that the film was made with a teenage cast of relative unknowns. When its target audience, ages 8 to 14, is considered, however, that isn't entirely true. Zac Efron, the film's male lead, appeared with preteen heartthrob Jesse McCartney in the WB series "Summerland" and Ashley Tisdale, who plays comically evil drama queen Sharpay, is well known to fans of the popular Disney Channel tween sitcom "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody."

In "High School Musical," Efron's basketball star, Troy, meets Vanessa Anne Hudgens' "brainiac," Gabriella, at a singing event and they establish an immediate musical and romantic connection.

Troy and Gabriella are soon trying out for the lead parts in their high-school musical. Their efforts are almost derailed by their separate groups of friends, who want Troy to concentrate on leading the basketball team to a championship and Gabriella to focus on bringing the school another academic title.

Everyone eventually gets on the same page, uniting against Troy and Gabriella's true enemies, while singing and dancing pretty much every step of the way.

"While the movie's soundtrack isn't exactly challenging, it does feature a pretty engaging mix of music and empowering messages," according to a recent Billboard review.

It being a Disney film, it can also be safely assumed that everything will work out for Troy and Gabriella by the time they hit their last notes. That's something for which Marsh makes no apologies.

"The reality is that a kid's world is incredibly tense and full of pressure and anguish," he says. "If what we can do is provide the release valve, provide the jubilation, the celebration that is what kids are looking for, if we it do right, it may be corny, but it sure feels good."