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‘High School Musical’ Turns 15: A Look Back at the Humble Origins of Disney Channel’s Billion-Dollar Franchise

In the early aughts, Kenny Ortega had directed a string of “Ally McBeal” and “Gilmore Girls” episodes, but what he really wanted was to return to making movies.

So he asked his agents to keep an eye out for a TV movie, something “under the radar” that would allow him to quietly flex his filmmaking chops as he slid behind the camera for his first feature since 1993’s “Hocus Pocus.” (And before that, he’d directed another cult Disney favorite, the 1992 musical “Newsies.”)

The script that caught his eye, a Disney Channel Original Movie with the working title “Untitled High School Musical Project,” became a phenomenon despite Ortega’s desire to keep a low-profile.

“High School Musical” was the rare made-for-TV movie that transcended its humble origins and captivated a generation of teens and tweens when it premiered on Jan. 20, 2006. It didn’t just launch the careers Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens (known then as Vanessa Anne Hudgens), Ashley Tisdale and more. It also became a financial juggernaut for the Disney Channel, driving unprecedented demand for DVDs, dolls, T-shirts, posters, sleeping bags, lunch boxes — you name it, Troy and Gabriella’s faces were on it. Then came a sold-out concert tour, traveling ice shows, touring stage productions, and a show at Disney theme parks.

By the time the sequel debuted on Disney Channel in 2007, setting a new cable television record with a huge 17.2 million viewers, the property was minting money. The third and final movie with the original cast, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” scored a theatrical released and generated more than $250 million at the global box office. In its first five years, the “High School Musical” franchise amassed $4 billion in retail sales worldwide.

And its popularity hasn’t waned. Last year, Disney Plus debuted the spinoff series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which focuses on a new generation of East High Wildcats putting together a production of what else? High School Musical.

Though Disney, years ago, began casting a fourth “High School Musical” film with a new set of cast members, it never took off. Ortega says maybe it’s for the better. He’s a fan of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” but making another movie set at East High “isn’t in my thinking.”

One thing on his bucket list? “I would love nothing more than a reunion where everyone, including Zac Efron, could have dinner together and say ‘Wow wasn’t that something?’ We don’t even need cameras there.”

In honor of the 15th anniversary, Variety spoke to cast and crew members about making the film — and how a modest teen musical became one of the most commercially successful TV movies ever and taught younger viewers to love musicals.

For the uninitiated, “High School Musical” centers on Troy Bolton (Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Hudgens), two high schoolers who meet during winter vacation and discover a mutual love of music after serendipitously singing karaoke together. By coincidence, Gabriella moves to Troy’s hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the new year and transfers to his school, East High. After some reluctance — and to the dismay of the entire student body — they try out for their school’s musical. Their travails included battling judgement from drama club president and preeminent thespian Sharpay Evans (Tisdale) and her twin brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), as well as Troy’s best friend and basketball teammate Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Gabriella’s new confidant and scholastic decathlon partner in crime Taylor (Monique Coleman).

If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because “High School Musical” plays like a lovingly kitschy mashup of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Grease.” Peter Barsocchini, the film’s screenwriter, admits to borrowing the concept of star-crossed lovers (in the world of East High, the jocks vs. the math geeks replaced the feuding Capulets and Montagues). “We did what everyone does when you need an idea,” Barsocchini says with a laugh. “You rip off Shakespeare.”

Yet the backstory was heavily inspired by his own upbringing at an all-boys Catholic high school. One day, the star athlete confided a dark secret to Barsocchini. “I’m going to tell you something, and if you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,'” his friend whispered. “‘I always wanted to be a ballet dancer.'” It’s not the kind of skeleton that would make kid’s today flinch. But way back when, he recalls, it would have turned the school upside down.

“High School Musical” loyalists know that story served as the influence behind Troy Bolton, the school’s basketball jock MVP who has a secret passion for harmonizing. Other small tidbits from Barsocchini’s life were woven into the script, like the name of his then 10-year-old daughter, Gabriella. Sharpay, meanwhile, was named after a dog that once sunk its choppers into him. “Seems nice, but bites,” he says.

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“In our very first meeting,” casting director Natalie Hart recalls, “Kenny [Ortega] said: ‘This has the potential to be this generation’s ‘Grease.'” ©Disney Channel/Courtesy Everet
Few details were changed from the original script. For the first and only time in Barsocchini’s career, executives greenlit the first draft. One request from Barsocchini, however, was aging up the would-be young stars. Disney wanted the film set in middle school. It’s not that “Middle School Musical” didn’t have the same ring. Rather, Barsocchini offered, audiences around the age of his preteen daughter “want to look down the road, not where they’re at today.”

And so casting directors Natalie Hart and Jason La Padura embarked on an arduous mission, one that involved multiple callbacks and auditioning hundreds of young actors, before finding lovable starlets to play Troy, Gabriella and the rest of the East High Wildcats.

“We ran auditions as if we were doing a Broadway musical,” Ortega says. “We put the kids through a really long process. Agents would call casting directors saying, ‘What is going on? Why are you keeping them so long?’ I was set on making sure these actors had all that it would take.”

From day one, the vision was clear. “In our very first meeting,” Hart recalls, “Kenny said: ‘This has the potential to be this generation’s ‘Grease.’ He really wanted people who had strong singing, acting and dancing qualities.” The casting process took around two months, a time in which Hart estimates they “saw the world.” Some were eliminated immediately because they couldn’t sing. Others, like Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, and Hunter Parrish, moved to the top of the pack as potential Troys.

Hart and La Padura had previously cast Efron, then 18, in the WB teen drama “Summerland” and brought him in after learning he could carry a tune. They recognized Vanessa Hudgens from a sci-fi movie “Thunderbirds” and were familiar with Ashley Tisdale from her breakout role on Disney Channel’s show “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”

“When we first met Zac, we felt he had the quality of what we’d call a matinee idol. He was stunning, but he wasn’t cocky, which isn’t something you’d find in young people,” Hart says. “He had an accessibility. We knew he had the capability of being a leading man.” They similarly felt Hudgens had an “It” factor that made her perfect to portray Gabriella, a bookish and beautiful brainiac who fears of being known as the school’s “freaky genius girl.”

After narrowing down the search in an epic 12-hour marathon callback day, it was time to put the decision in the hands of Disney execs. Efron and Hudgens were paired up for the final callback. The casting directors knew they had undeniable chemistry and would make an ideal onscreen duo. The only issue? Hudgens had puppy eyes for her soon-to-be leading man and was nervous to act opposite a shaggy-haired Efron.

“She was so smitten. She said, ‘He’s too cute. I can’t read with him.’ She had a meltdown,” Hart recalls fondly.

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Gary Marsh, longtime head of Disney Channels Worldwide, says, “We saw the chemistry between [Zac and Vanessa], and we were sold.” ©Disney Channel/Courtesy Everet
For what it’s worth, Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Branded Television who headed Disney Channel Worldwide at the time, was immediately impressed. “It’s easy to say in hindsight. But when they auditioned together, it was clear. It wasn’t even a close call,” Marsh says. “We saw the chemistry between them, and we were sold.”

Though Seeley didn’t get the part, he would later make his mark on the film’s music. Efron had plenty of charisma and charm, but internally there was concern about his vocal prowess. “They didn’t think his voice was as strong as it needed to be,” La Padura, the casting director, recalls. Seeley ended up recording vocals for Troy, and Efron lip synced throughout the movie to someone else’s singing. “We thought they were going to use Zac’s voice,” Hart adds. “But they felt Drew’s was stronger. When it became a success, they had Zac taking voice lessons.” Efron’s singing voice was eventually used in subsequent sequels.

(A funny aside: Disney executives didn’t come clean at first, instructing Efron to pretend that it was his voice when doing press for the first movie. “We were all given talking points,” Efron told Newsweek in 2007. “When ‘High School Musical’ became successful, that’s when we found ourselves having to backtrack.”)

The part of Troy’s best friend Chad went to Corbin Bleu, who originally auditioned for Ryan. Meanwhile the 20-year-old Lucas Grabeel, who previously starred in the Disney Channel movie “Halloweentown High” and was working at Blockbuster, initially read for Troy. Ortega liked Grabeel’s energy but suggested he’d be better suited for Sharpay’s theater-loving brother Ryan. Grabeel remembers asking Ortega, “Is Ryan gay? How are we going to play this?”

Ortega, who is openly gay, never wanted to explicitly mention Ryan’s sexual orientation. “I wanted a gay character, but I knew I had to be careful,” Ortega says. “I never shared that part of myself in high school. The times were different. I told Lucas it won’t be something Ryan acts on in high school. I didn’t want him to be stereotype.” That was something Ortega achieved, in turn offering many teens someone they could look up to and emulate. “Without having to say he’s gay, I’ve so many young gay kids reached out to say thank you for giving us Ryan Evans.”

While the cast was being finalized, Barsocchini, Ortega and executives at Disney were refining the screenplay. “High School Musical” may not have worked without its squeaky-clean storyline, bordering on saccharine-sweet to avoid polarizing any family audiences. The only dirt that Sharpay, the film’s “ice princess” villain, could dig up on Gabriella is that she’s too smart. “An Einstein-ette,” Ryan offers in the film. The closest thing to scandal is when the over-the-top drama teacher Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) stomps through the sweaty men’s gym locker room. In true Disney fashion, the two central lovers don’t even kiss until the end of the sequel. The first only offers up an innocent peck on the cheek. In other words, “High School Musical” earns its G-rating.

As for the lack of a lip lock, Ortega says “not everything needs to be sealed with a kiss.” However, Efron and Hudgens, who ultimately started dating in real life, were yearning for some onscreen action. “There was something going on with those two youngsters,” Ortega remembers. “They were like, ‘When are we going to kiss?!’ We felt it didn’t belong there.”

It was the franchise’s genuine innocence that captivated viewers across the country — and the world. Like “American Idol,” another musical phenomenon that existed at around the same time, “High School Musical” could play to tweens, teens and their parents. “One of the reasons it took off is because parents could watch it with their kids without cringing,” Barsocchini says. “People will be critical it’s a phony Disney version of a family, but that’s what we set out to do.” Ortega attests the messaging also helped the film catch fire: “It was be fearless. Don’t stick to the status quo. Don’t fall to peer pressure.”

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Screenwriter Peter Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega deliberately placed the movie’s song and dance numbers to “trick” boys into watching a musical. ©Disney Channel/Courtesy Everet

Barsocchini knew that infectious tunes — and the promise of a heartthrob like Efron — would make “High School Musical” an easy sell for girls. Convincing boys to watch could be a different story. So he placed the movie’s numerous musical numbers very deliberately, careful not to scare away any dudes with a “break-into-song musical.”

“We made a conscious decision to make the first song a karaoke number [“The Start of Something New”]. We thought, we will fool them into watching a musical,” Barsocchini says. “The second is [“Get’cha Head in the Game”], a guy’s number in the gym. By the time it became a musical, they didn’t know they were watching a musical.”

The first full-fledged musical number came at the request of executives, who suggested turning a standard cafeteria scene into a splashy song and dance. That became “Stick to the Status Quo,” a catchy anthem about the struggle between having your own voice and conforming to peer pressure. (An athlete who can make a mean crème brûlée? Say it ain’t so!) David Lawrence, who composed the film, wrote the song with his wife and producing partner Faye Greenberg. Since “High School Musical” had an expedited production schedule, separate songwriters were commissioned to pen the remaining breakout tunes, like “Breaking Free” and “What I’ve Been Looking For.”

“In the old days, movie musicals were cinematic reproductions of what they were on Broadway. Original musicals take two-to-four years of crafting and creating with producers,” Lawrence says. “‘High School Musical’ was done the opposite. We had very little time.”

They knew they had to end with a bang. The team came up with a feel-good number called “Everyone’s a Winner” to close out the film. Disney Channel’s Marsh remembers having one note. “I loved the song, and I hated the hook. I said, ‘Can we come up with something that feels less cheesy?” As a result, they brought back a rewritten chorus and a new title — “We’re All in This Together.” “The world would have been different without it,” he adds, knowingly.

The cast grew close during the weeks-long shoot in Salt Lake City, Utah, bonding over rigorous vocal training and dance rehearsals. Musical numbers were regularly granted two to three days to perfect and capture on camera. Grabeel recalls practicing “We’re All in This Together” approximately “ten thousand times before shooting it.” The secret to dancing with a basketball in “Get’cha Head in the Game”? “Never part with it,” Bleu advises. “I had a basketball with me everywhere. I slept with it.”

On the first day of filming, Ortega, who had previously choreographed “Dirty Dancing” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” excitedly lost track of time and taught the cast the dances for two hours without giving them a break. Though he profusely apologized, Efron assured him there was no need to say sorry. Ortega remembers, “Zac Efron walked up to me and said, ‘This is what we chose to do. We’re here to make this great.’ At that moment, he gave me permission to make the movie — that I could go for things, I could challenge them and myself.”

The cast also fondly remembers getting permission to infuse themselves into the script; Bleu had a heavy hand in the quirky jokes for character’s T-shirts, while Grabeel remembers improvising the line, “Everybody loves a good jazz square.”

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The cast grew close during the weeks-long shoot in Utah, bonding over rigorous vocal training and dance rehearsals. ©Disney Channel/Courtesy Everet

Back at the Disney lot, excitement started to generate as the movie came together. The first positive indication came from dailies, industry jargon for unedited movie footage that’s collected each day for executives. Back then, they arrived in the form of cassette tapes. “They were like contraband people wanted to get their hands on,” Marsh says. “Slowly, the buzz internally started to rise.”

For all of its runaway success and enduring popularity, executives at Disney weren’t initially confident in “High School Musical” and felt they were taking a big risk by giving it a $4.2 million budget. That’s not to say they didn’t like the movie. But musicals are notoriously tricky to pull off, especially if they’re original and not adapted from a well-known Broadway show.

“You have to understand, nobody wanted to touch musicals on television. It was taboo,” Lawrence, the composer, says. “[Conventional wisdom says] they don’t generate ratings, people are bored and not into musicals. Disney was taking a really big chance.” Barsocchini adds, “The week before it premiered, everyone got cold feet. It was the most money the Disney Channel ever spent on a television movie.”

Ortega admits: “I remembered being nervous.”

Any fears dissipated on the day the movie premiered. “It was a juggernaut that came out of nowhere.”  Barsocchini says. “We got an email from [then-Disney Channels president] Rich Ross saying, ‘The world just changed. ‘High School Musical’ was No. 1 in the timeslot in all of cable and broadcast in women ages 18-49.'”

Disney Channel capitalized on the momentum with sing-along and dance-along screenings week after week. “We didn’t know it would land with this kind of a thunderclap. And then it kept growing,” Marsh says. All of the songs on the soundtrack charted, unheard of for a TV movie soundtrack.

There was a sense on set that the cast and crew were creating something special, but wasn’t until the film aired on Disney Channel that the young stars understood how drastically their lives would alter. After all, this was before the days where you could tell something was popular because the hunky lead gained several million Instagram followers overnight.

“At the time I was working on another TV show,” Bleu says. “When the movie aired, we went to this carnival over the weekend, and I was mobbed. I never experienced anything like it in my life. Overnight, everything completely changed. There’s nothing to prepare you for that kind of onslaught.” Grabeel never returned to his job at Blockbuster.

Many of the other actors tried to distance themselves from the franchise after “High School Musical 3” in an effort to grow up in Hollywood (which may explain why Efron, Hudgens and Tisdale declined to be interviewed for this story). That strategy seems to have paid off for Efron, who transcended his Disney Channel roots and went on to headline box office hits including “Hairspray,” “17 Again” and “Neighbors.” Efron’s career may have moved beyond East High, but even those roles failed to achieve the kind of feverish fan support as his returns to playing Troy Bolton.

In 2007, about a year after “High School Musical” premiered, Variety asked about the forthcoming sequel: “Will the tens of millions of teens from Tuscon to Tuscaloosa (not to mention Brazil and Australia) go for a whole new set of numbers and storylines when they’re so attached to the old ones?” The short answer: Duh.