Disney’s High School Musical may have finally evacuated the Hammersmith Apollo yesterday after its London summer run there, though we probably shouldn’t be too relieved: it’s bound to be back, and even if it isn’t, a separate touring production is still on the road, with dates currently booked to May 2009. And if we’re yet to see High School Musical 2 transferred to the stage, next month sees the cinematic release of High School Musical 3, so the franchise is far from running out of steam. It’s what Disney, of course, do best: they create a money-making property, and drain it for every financial opportunity going. (High School Musical is even a Playstation karaoke game - though as Metro recently blissfully reported, the lyric booklet that accompanies it apparently printed “counterpart” as “cunterpart” to the song “Fabulous”, which is simply fabulous).
I previously blogged here about how seeing the opening of High School Musical at Hammersmith made me feel as if I was having an out-of-body experience. As I admitted then, “the audience were tuning into something that I simply wasn’t on the same wavelength of.” It even made me rashly declare that I suddenly felt sympathy with Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph when he declared that he’d “never really understood why critics are supposed to go to musicals…. What is more, it is inhumane to make us go.”
He seems to have since revised this view himself, going on to give five stars to Marguerite (soon o close prematurely, which at least will stop those five stars being constantly quoted on Classic FM) and a couple of Sundays ago, to both Gigi and Piaf — but he also seems to simultaneously want to maintain his earlier view, too, and has even offered my apparent volte-face in his own support: “My assertion in this column in the early spring that a lot of modern musicals had little, if anything to do with serious theatre provoked a lively debate among readers, impresarios and indeed my fellow critics who, I note, chatter about little else in their various publications and websites even now”. He then says, “We reached the nadir with High School Musical, which finally convinced even the chap from the actors’ journal The Stage that perhaps I did, after all, have a point.”
Though we’ll gloss over the fact that the Sunday Telegraph’s own review of High School Musical didn’t regard the show as a particular nadir - Tim Auld awarded it three stars - he’s right about one thing only: this particular musical wasn’t for me. (As I said in my own Sunday Express review, “It certainly occurred to me that I was roughly 30 to 35 years above the age of the intended target audience of 10-15 year-olds.”) But I wouldn’t write off the entire genre - as I’ve previously admitted here, I unashamedly love musicals - on the basis of just this one.
And yet I’ll even support it for one thing: it has made kids think about musicals being “cool” again. And even if High School Musical seemed to me both phoney and ersatz, last night saw both the start and finish of another new phenomenon that will surely be extending that idea - and is the real deal of a high school actually putting on a show. Sky1 debuted the first episode of Hairpray the School Musical, a new series that follows a North London high school putting on the world premiere of an abbreviated schools’ version of the hit Broadway and West End musical - while at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric Theatre, proud parents and teachers, plus assorted media including yours truly, were watching the results of those endeavours, being filmed for the grand finale of the series.
Of course, with the professional help, guidance and mentoring that these kids received - with Denise van Outen presenting, Stacey Haynes directing and choreographing, Zoe Tyler as vocal coach, and the West End’s associate director and choreographer Benjamin Endsley Klein and Danny Austin on board as consultants - and everything being staged under the watchful eye of TV cameras, this was inevitably a heightened version of the experience of putting on a show, but it will surely encourage them to do so again. As one of last night’s stars said in her programme biography, “I have never done anything like this before. It’s my first experience of live performance outside of school. This has been life-changing and a dream come true and I hope I can do something like this again.”
And hopefully lots of kids who watch it will also be encouraged. TV castings of the leads for the current West End productions of The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Grease and the forthcoming Oliver! have given the public a direct stake in the production of musicals; now Hairspray the School Musical is giving them a direct insight into putting them on for themselves. If kids can get this enthused about putting on musicals, the long-term future of the form is being secured; and Hairspray, too, is sure to be the first winner, as audiences follow the TV experience by seeing it live for themselves.