August 13th, 2007

Tweens agog for next act of 'High School Musical'

By Alex Shebar
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Parents, kids ready for sequel to Disney's megahit

A familiar concept, almost to the point of becoming a cliché: Adapt a film version of Romeo and Juliet to modern times. Want to make it even more formulaic? Add music and dancing (like West Side Story, Grease and Dirty Dancing). Now try doing it without sex, violence, drugs or any form of questionable behavior and still have it remain popular. Ah, therein lies the challenge.

Disney executives tried exactly that with High School Musical, and not only did they succeed, they created a worldwide megapopular phenomenon for tweens, one that surprised everyone — even themselves.

Now, the franchise is expected to grow even larger when its sequel, High School Musical 2, debuts Friday on the Disney Channel (cable channel 61). This release has been eagerly awaited by tweens in Rochester and across the nation, who have been planning parties to watch the film with friends.

High School Musical, a Disney Channel original movie, was released in January 2006. It was a tale of a high school boy and a girl from opposite cliques who find mutual attraction in each other and singing. It is a campy story about chasing your dreams and being true to yourself, all set to the tune of a slew of equally cheesy but fun songs.

No one could have seen, though, how popular the whole film would become. When Disney first got the script, they knew it was special but still a tough sell, said Matt Palmer, executive vice president for Stardoll Entertainment. Until three moths ago, he was Disney’s senior vice president of marketing.

“As a marketer, we knew a musical was a challenge, especially in the kids’ universe,” he said. “But the Disney Channel movie franchise has been steady and successful over the years, and the chance of this connecting was there.”

There’s no doubt the movie connected. Since its debut, HSM has been seen by 170 million people worldwide. The soundtrack has sold more than 7 million copies in the United States. The film won two Emmys and the DVD has sold close to 8 million copies.

HSM quickly joined the mega-popular ranks of pop-culture trends such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the biggest-selling book series ever, and American Idol, the most successful network TV show ever based on ratings. All of these focus on everyday people (or wizards) reaching for something better. They promote a message of being true to yourself and striving for your own personal goals, something anyone can relate to.

“(HSM’s) whole notion to be yourself ... was an empowering message to kids,” Palmer said. “Kids everywhere took it to heart.”

Idol, Potter and HSM represent cultural events that most parents have no problem letting their children participate in, and more importantly, participate in themselves. For HSM, it’s an extremely clean-cut story that the whole family can enjoy, raising its popularity, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“To tell a story about high school kids with virtually no sex in the 21st century is basically unheard of. ... It’s incredibly old-fashioned,” he said. “If you are an 11-year-old, you watch it with absolutely no irony. If you are an 11-year-old’s parents, you may watch it with some irony, but either way you’re watching.”

Family interaction doesn’t end with the film’s closing credits; parents have used HSM as a way to keep connecting with their children. The popularity of the first film has made the coming of HSM2 into a nationwide household event. Film release parties have been in the works for months among fans of all ages.

One of these is being held by Hannah Wolfe, who will be a fifth-grader at Thornell Road Elementary School in Pittsford. She will be celebrating her 10th birthday with 14 or 15 of her friends at a High School Musical 2 party. On tap: film-themed relay races, karaoke to the songs from the original HSM and, of course, the movie.

The Wolfe house will be like many others as girls hold slumber parties to mark the occasion. On Saturday night, the Westside, Northwest and Monroe YMCAs are partnering with Disney to offer HSM2 family nights.

Palmer attributes HSM’s popularity to Disney’s ingenious marketing.

Disney has spun off a variety of HSM-themed items and events: DVDs, compact discs, video games, a stars’ concert tour (which has been to Rochester), the HSM national touring musical (which comes to Rochester in October) and a touring national ice show (here in January). Fan sites across the Web have sprouted, everything from HSM sing-along pages to obsessive fan sites for lead Zac Efron. (Don’t know who he is? Ask a tween girl, and she’ll fill you in).

It’s this overabundance of commercialism that has some people worried. HSM is just the current example in a long line of cultural tidal waves in which a popular item is overmarketed to children, causing negative effects, said Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert.

“(Kids now) relate to culture and other kids by what they have. It’s way beyond the days of ‘Be the first on your block.’ Now it’s ... ‘Be the first on your block to have everything,’ and everything is a really long list,” he said.

A quick Internet search reveals just how big HSM is. The Web has become a key player in the marketing of new products. Unlike past generations, fans now play a major role in the advertising of their favorite things, said Angel Cohn, editor for AOL Television. This is what separates the HSMs of today from the Greases of yesterday, and makes the former so much more popular. People create Web pages, post in their blogs or just chat with like-minded people around the world, trading examples of “If you like this thing, then check out (blank).”

“People ... are so excited to share information,” Cohn said. “If you are in a small town, you can talk to someone halfway across the country and find a friend who is into High School Musical.”

Never even heard of High School Musical? Not surprising, since it only played on the Disney Channel, went straight to DVD and its songs got limited mainstream radio play. Once High School Musical 3 comes out in theaters nationwide (yes, it’s already been approved), it will become a true household name. Until then, it remains a subculture of the tween world, Thompson said.

“It’s perfectly possible for a well-informed human being to not even know this exists,” he said. “But if you know a 12-year-old girl, not only do you know about High School Musical, you realize the whole world is revolving around High School Musical.”

If this seems extreme to you, you clearly don’t know how much HSM has become part of the tween psyche.

“I just love it. I got interested in the story and all the characters, and I like the story,” says Hannah Wolfe, who postponed her birthday party from June for HSM2. 

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