- “High School Musical” premiered on Disney Channel on January 20, 2006.
- The hit film led to two sequels and a spin-off series on Disney Plus.
- Stars Lucas Grabeel and Monique Coleman spoke to Insider about the iconic movie and its legacy.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The film centered on East High basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and new student Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) bonding over their newfound love for singing â€” and shaking up the school’s status quo ahead of the winter musical production.
In honour of the movie’s anniversary, Insider spoke with stars Lucas Grabeel (Ryan Evans) and Monique Coleman (Taylor McKessie) to discuss the hit film, the sequels, and the spin-off series it spawned, along with the franchise’s legacy.
Right from the beginning, the cast members were involved in character creation
Taylor, the president of East High’s chem club, wore headbands of various colours and styles with almost every outfit throughout the “HSM” films, and it wasn’t a coincidence.
“We’ve grown a lot in this industry and we’ve grown a lot in representation and we’ve grown a lot in terms of understanding the needs of an African-American actress,” Coleman told Insider. “But the truth is, is that they had done my hair and they had done it very poorly in the front. And we had to start filming before I had a chance to fix it.”
Coleman suggested that they utilise headbands â€” rather than try to cover her hair â€” and make that part of who Taylor was. And the trend continued throughout the “HSM” sequels.
“I was very lucky because the wardrobe department was very open to our feedback,” she said.
On paper, Ryan was essentially the sidekick of his twin sister Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale).
But Grabeel worked with Ortega to elevate the character and include nods to him being gay â€” an aspect of his identity that Disney “was not on board with” at the time.
“The first conversation we had, I went up to him and I was like, ‘OK, so Ryan, is he gay or what?'” Grabeel recalled. “And [Kenny’s] like, ‘Look, it would be the easy choice just to make him this flamboyant character who’s an archetype or a caricature of these theatre kids, but let’s do this even smarter. Let’s add layers.”
Grabeel, who had prior theatre experience, came up with Sharpay and Ryan’s vocal warmups seen before their performances of “What I’ve Been Looking For” and “Bop to the Top.”
And his character’s insistence on including a jazz square while performing “What I’ve Been Looking For,” much to the annoyance of his sister, was inspired by a real-life choreographer who “put in jazz squares in every single number.”
“That was one of the greatest gifts,” Grabeel said. “For a young actor to be able to have as much input as I did was really incredible.”
Grabeel said that he also did a lot of ad-libbing, most of which didn’t make the final cut, but having that creative freedom and “that time spent shaping the character helped the other moments that did make it. “
The actor also recalled being encouraged to come up with ideas during dance rehearsals with Tisdale and Ortega, along with choreographers Bonnie Story and Chucky Klapow for “What I’ve Been Looking For” and “Bop to the Top.”
“We got to kind of put our own spin on it, which was not something that typically happens,” Grabeel said. “If Disney had known that it was going to be such a big thing, I don’t know if we, as actors, would have been given such freedom because we were so young and so inexperienced.”
Ortega, whose “genius comes from allowing people to shine,” also acted as a “coach” to the stars, the actor recalled.
“He said in the very beginning, ‘Never stop until I say cut. I don’t care if the scene on paper is done. Always stay in the moment,” Grabeel said.
Filming ‘We’re All in This Together,’ was ‘one of the most magical experiences’ for Coleman
One of the aspects that made “We’re All in This Together” special to Coleman was the fact that she helped to create Taylor’s outfit for the scene â€” and it was inspired by an iconic pop star.
“I based it off of Britney Spears actually because I thought, ‘It would be really fun for Taylor to kind of have this sort of awakening moment,'” the actress said of being influenced by Spears’ schoolgirl outfit in the music video for “…Baby One More Time.”
“I thought the tie was a really cute look,” she said. “That was so, so long ago that the ‘…One More Time’ video was still relevant and I thought, ‘Huh, wouldn’t it be kind of cool if Taylor had a nod to that in some way?'”
But filming the scene itself was “one of the most magical experiences” Coleman has ever had on a set, she said, adding it was the moment “you really got to understand the magic of Kenny Ortega.”
“He, on the spot, was just pulling different things together,” the actress added, explaining that there was “a lot of pressure” to nail the musical number in one take because after the balloons and confetti were released, they wouldn’t be able to redo it due to time constraints.
“He pulled us aside and he talked to us about a little movie that he had done before called ‘Dirty Dancing’ and talked about how the scene that we did was not about singing, it wasn’t about being the best singers or the best dancers,” Coleman said. “It was about having the biggest heart and about really dancing from our heart.”
“And that’s what we did,” she continued, “And I feel like that’s the magic that was captured in that scene.”
Grabeel shared similar memories while reminiscing about the scene and the direction that Ortega gave.
“He just said, ‘Look, this is on film. This is forever. You know the choreography, but take that out of your mind right now and dance from the heart and try to shoot your spirit into that camera and reach the children across the country and the world and show them what ‘We’re All in This Together’ really means,'” Grabeel recalled.
He continued: “After we all wiped the tears from our eyes, we were just so jazzed and so pumped and I’ve never hit dance moves harder.”
To say that ‘HSM’ was well-received upon its release would be an understatement
When the movie premiered on Disney Channel on January 20, 2006, it racked up 7.7 million viewers â€” not too shabby for a film that predated social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, which nowadays are widely considered essential to promoting movies.
Sing-along and dance-along versions, featuring the stars showing fans how to do the choreography for “We’re All in This Together,” also aired on Disney following the film’s successful debut.
The cast (minus Efron, who was filming “Hairspray”) embarked on a North American concert with Drew Seeley, the actor-singer who sang Troy Bolton’s parts in the first movie.
The stars appeared on the covers of teen magazines, schools across the US put on their own productions of “HSM,” and the soundtrack, which earned a Billboard Music Award, became the top-selling album of 2006 with 3.7 million copies sold.
“When it came out, it was kind of a slow explosion, which is weird, but it kind of just snowballed into this great, huge phenomenon,” Grabeel said.
The actor cited the cast’s March 2006 trip to New York, in which they appeared on “Good Morning America” and the “Today” show, as the moment when he really recognised the popularity of “HSM.”
“When we did it, people were screaming and we had security and we were rushed out in the back in black SUVs racing down Manhattan streets,” he recalled. “That was like, ‘Holy s—, this is something way different.”
“I don’t think we knew until we did the ‘Today’ show and we were Teen People’s 25 Hottest Stars Under 25, back when Teen People was a magazine,” Coleman said in agreement, adding that she truly understood the gravity of “HSM” when a sequel was greenlit.
With all of the newfound fame and attention, it wasn’t always easy, Grabeel admitted.
“It was way too much too fast and it was really hard for me to handle at first,” he added. “We did a lot of growing in a very short amount of time, in a very weird way.”
Sharpay was not the victim of the franchise, according to Grabeel
The characterization of Sharpay, the resident “ice princess” of East High, has been debated by fans over the years, especially those who have come to see her in a different light after rewatching the “HSM” movies as adults.
Many have argued that despite her functioning as the antagonist in the first film, she was less of a villain and more of a victim. Some have said that Troy and Gabriella, who had no previous theatre experience but always managed to come out on top, were actually the villains in the story.
“I don’t think she’s a victim at all,” Grabeel told Insider. “Look at the reasons. You can say that she’s a victim by saying, ‘Oh, poor her because she didn’t get this or she didn’t get that.’ But why is she going for it in the first place? She’s conniving in undermining Gabriela. She’s usurping her at every corner.”
Grabeel also said that fans should actually look at the way another character is treated in the films.
“I think if anyone’s a victim, it’s Ryan,” the actor said. “He gets just s— on the whole time and doesn’t even get his moment. He gets like a half a moment in the second and the third movies, but really, it’s like the whole time he’s in the background.”
‘HSM 2’ brought about one of the most impressive musical numbers involving baseball â€” and sparked fan theories
The fan chatter around “I Don’t Dance,” in which Ryan and Chad (Corbin Bleu) sang about baseball and dancing (and came to see eye to eye), is two-fold.
People have theorised that the song itself was a metaphor for sexuality and experimentation, and that the two characters had sexual tension throughout.
Adding fuel to the fire was their unexplained outfit swap that happened after the baseball sequence. Aside from Taylor saying, “Nice hat” to Chad, no one else commented on the moment.
Because of this, some fans believed that Ryan and Chad might have had feelings for each other.
Grabeel said that regarding the Ryan-Chad outfit switch, “it wasn’t a long-term premeditated thing.”
The actor said that they filmed the musical number over two days and while setting up for the next scene, they were “kind of playing around with some dialogue and different ways we could do it.”
“And Kenny just at the last minute was like, ‘Why don’t you guys wear each other’s hats?’ And we were like, ‘Oh, OK, cool.’ And then he’s like, ‘Actually, why don’t you wear each other’s shirts, too?” Grabeel recalled.
Grabeel said the point of “I Don’t Dance” was to show how Chad came to the realisation that “dancing wasn’t uncool” and that his assumption Ryan was nothing more than a theatre kid was incorrect.
The sequence also tied into Ryan’s journey throughout “HSM 2,” as he distanced himself from Sharpay, “from negativity,” and from “drawing borders between people.”
“It wasn’t meant to be this homoerotic thing,” he clarified, adding, “But I think that Kenny knew a little bit more about how that was going to come out. And the thing is, is that he could have changed that in editing because I think we shot it both ways.”
Grabeel also listed “I Don’t Dance” as one of his favourite numbers of the whole franchise, because “it was so cool, it was old school.”
“It was like Gene Kelly,” he said. “It was masculine and artistic and with flair and […] it felt like an old Hollywood musical number.”
“I think that went over a lot of people’s heads and I think people read into it incorrectly,” Grabeel added. “I don’t think that it had anything to do with us liking each other. I think it had everything to do with our teams and our ultimate goals as to work together and to break down barriers between each other.”
Grabeel also said the way Ryan interacts with athlete and baking extraordinaire Zeke Baylor (Chris Warren) is far more telling than his moments with Chad.
“Ryan had a very confusing crush on Zeke,” the actor said. “He was figuring it out and he didn’t know who he was, which is where most kids are in high school. And that’s why we didn’t want it to be this like, over-the-top flamboyant, ‘I’m gay and this is just what it is,’ you know? It needed to have subtlety.”
Grabeel added he and Ortega were always looking for opportunities where they could integrate “these little looks and exchanges” to build the crush.
While many of these moments were ultimately cut, you could still see hints of it when Ryan’s accepting Zeke’s baked goods “or just looking at him in awe in the background.”
‘HSM’ became so popular that the 3rd film moved the franchise from the silver screen to the big screen
Released in theatres in October 2008, the final instalment centered on the main characters gearing up for their high school graduation, figuring out what college to attend, and participating in a meta spring musical based on their senior year.
With a budget of around $US11 million, the film featured elaborate numbers, from the opening scene to Troy’s “Inception”-esque “Scream” sequence.
Grabeel said that “I Want It All,” Sharpay and Ryan’s over-the-top sequence about their dreams of becoming famous, was “one of the biggest numbers” in the movie.
“It was a million-dollar number, which is crazy because our first movie only cost $US4.5 million, and we’re spending a whole million dollars on one musical number,” he said.
The cafeteria floor was completely remodeled, plenty of props were built, and they filmed the scene in three days, Grabeel said.
They even shot real fireworks from the Statue of Liberty head, but “it just didn’t work out,” so the explosion in the final version is the product of CGI.
Shooting the graduation scene was also emotional for the cast, especially knowing that their “HSM” journey was coming to an end.
“I remember the moment when we had the giant curtain set up on the football field, which was also real, and us shooting that moment where the curtain closed. All of us just started crying,” Grabeel recalled.
“There were a lot of moments of like, ‘Oh, this is the last thing that we’re doing here,'” he continued.
Although it’s been more than a decade since the last movie came out, the franchise lives on
The continued success of the franchise is largely due to Disney Plus’ spin-off series, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
Original “HSM” stars Grabeel and Kaycee Stroh (Martha Cox) both appeared on season one of the show.
Coleman told Insider she didn’t get a chance to binge the series yet, but she met the stars and saw the first two episodes at the premiere.
“I loved it and everything that I’ve seen,” the actress said. “They’re just wonderful. Every time I see them, I feel really excited that they continue the franchise. I think they’re a delicious group of young people and I’m happy for them to have the ‘High School Musical’ experience.”
The original cast members, minus Efron, have also reunited in recent years to celebrate the franchise. They reminisced when the first movie’s 10th anniversary happened in 2016 and reunited virtually in 2020 to perform “We’re All in This Together” as part of Disney’s sing-along special.
For Coleman, the song felt relevant and hopeful during a pandemic, almost like “a slogan” for the unprecedented time period.
“I would go to the grocery store and I’d hear ‘We’re All in This Together,'” she said. “That was really profound and kind of spoke to how universal that message is, but also, just the impact that we really had made in culture.”
What fans didn’t see during the sing-along were the hours the cast members spent reconnecting and relearning dance moves they hadn’t done in years.
“Behind the scenes, it was an amazing moment that brought us all, minus Zac, together,” Grabeel said. “I talked to Ashley on the phone for like two hours. I talked to Vanessa several times over those weeks, and Monique and Corbin … it was really amazing to kind of rekindle.”
Grabeel admitted “it’s really hard to get us all together,” but when they do reconnect it’s delightful.
“For me, anytime someone says anything about us getting together in the name of ‘High School Musical,’ I’m gonna f—ing do it because it’s everything. It’s what made us,” he said. “None of us would be where we are today without that.”
“I love all of them,” he added. “They’re all family to me and I’ll always answer the call if any one of them calls.”