The Next Big Thing in Theatre: Disney's High School Musical is a Slam-Dunk and the 'Sleeper-Hit' Nobody Saw Coming

In what seems to have happened effortlessly and somehow "under the radar" (highly unusual in the world of theatre) Disney HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL seems to have snuck in and is about to change the landscape.

As in the '80s and '90s, when producers were feverishly trying to copy the success achieved by such British mega-musicals as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, modern day producers have been trying to put their finger on that elusive connection that makes an unparalleled hit such as WICKED.

All of a sudden, the words "tweens" and "young girls" were on everyone's minds, hence Legally Blonde. The secret, however, is "Who's going to bring those tweens to the theatre?"...meaning....that the parents better have a good time, too. That seems to be the trick here.

Disney HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL started out like any other airing on The Disney Channel - innocently and within the realm of a small budget by any standards. But, "Hey, what's this?... it's OK for a jock to be in a musical???"...and there you have it, an audience captured. Add a little romance, an appealing cast of unknowns, a high school, some sports, some great second sidekick characters, some sassy dialogue (even a reference to musical theatre star Michael Crawford), energy, music, dance, shake...and drink. And that's how all this all began.

Disney HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL went on to break records as the airings piled up, the soundtrack became the number 1 recording for all of last year, and the licensing for developing a stage version fell into the hands of
Steve Fickinger,
Vice President of Licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions (based on the West Coast) and Freddie Gershon, Chairman, Music Theatre International (in New York).

Push accomplished director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun to the forefront and the story goes like this...

Let's start at the beginning – how did you get the offer to direct HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL?

Actually, Christopher Manos called me from Theater of the Stars (in Atlanta), because they had one of the first licensed productions from Disney.

Had you seen the movie beforehand?

When they asked me to do it, I asked them to overnight me a copy of the film. I hadn't seen it, or even heard of it at all, until I got the phone call about it. They overnighted it and I got home late in the day when it arrived after a Grey Gardens tech rehearsal. It was one or two in the morning when I watched it and I liked the message and really enjoyed the film as a whole. I could relate to the story as well, because although I was quarterback of the football team in high school, I also directed the shows. I even used to put the whole football team in the ensemble!

The story resonated with me and I wished that when I was younger that I had this kind of movie to watch, to see that there could be an athlete and a jock that was also interested in musical theatre. I liked that and said, "Sure – I'd love to do it."

So you hadn't seen the film – were you aware of the property and the phenomenon surrounding the piece?

Nope, to be honest, I never even heard the title before I got the call.

How long before the Atlanta production did you become involved?

I came on board about 2 months before the Atlanta production. I believe they had offered it to another director who ultimately passed, so I'm very grateful that they did pass so I could get the chance!

And the tour is being produced by Disney Theatricals?

Yes, they are the ones that are really responsible for adapting it from the film to the stage.

MTI has the rights for amateur productions and it seems like there's hundreds of them out there…

I don't have the numbers, but thousands of high schools and amateur productions have cropped up all over the country...

Are the rights held back as other shows do, or are there geographic limitations?

I don't know the answer to that, but I can only assume that there will probably be some restrictions around the distance of productions and the official tour. I assume that the production that we're doing will be available as a template, but I don't know. My job was to make it work on the stage from the rehearsal room to the production, and I know more about the artistic end of things than the business end of it.

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Freddie Gershon, Chairman, Music Theatre International

We hear from Jeff that you saw the show in Atlanta, what was your take?

I thought that it was phenomenal and that Jeff was the perfect man for the job.

MTI controls the amateur rights for the show, which began to be licensed before these professional productions began. Will folks now need to follow the path of the stage show?

Absolutely not. They get a script and a score and they know exactly what they want to do... Jeff's work is spot-on, but we'd never tell anybody for this production that they had to use that template. The important thing is that it should look like it's happening in the high school that's putting it on. Some well-off high schools have actually sent us footage of productions that are even more elaborate than the professional production, so it's amazing what creativity unleashed can do there.

Just "Googling" the show, it's amazing how many productions there seem to be already?

It's actually done triple the business of any show in any one year that we're ever had. The success is unbelievable.

Any future plans for offshoots?

We're talking about the second one. I could see a junior 60 minute version down the road of the show, as well, geared toward middle schools and younger kids.

To what do you attribute to the unparalleled success?

When you look at the success of the film and the album, it's unbelievable and that's, of course, helped. Another thing that's great about the show, compared to even Grease and many other shows that are often done by schools, is that it's 100% PG in every sense of the word. We have a big country, with different sensibilities all over it and material that might work in one area, doesn't always work in another. This show has NOTHING that anyone's ever objected to. The only small change that some schools make is if the kids don't want to kiss at the end.

It's also a perfect fit because it allows for a very large cast and when you have scenes in there, like the basketball sequence, then first of all you can involve the sports teams and second, it helps to desensitize any theatre stigmatisms that frighten boys away from wanting to participate. With the basketball number and TV shows like American Idol showing that there's nothing wrong with performing, it's a "babe magnet."

All these themes helped the movie along as well…

Absolutely, it's a special alignment of the stars because you have the jock as the subject matter and this theme of finding your voice, and gaining respect for it. The one change which we made for the stage show, which was Steve Fickinger's idea, was to soften the role of the drama teacher. When teachers looked at the production and they see the drama teacher in the film (Alyson Reed) who looked like an insensitive caricature, we realized that on stage if we instead made them a champion for the kids, it'd be a better fit.

How does a school go about getting a license?

It's very easy to get a license -- you apply, and send in a check and it's yours. Visit

Has the launch of the tour and the upcoming sequel helped generate even more interest?

Yes, but it's interesting, because here we started with amateur productions, and the intense interest and success is now feeding the professional market. Usually by the time a show gets to the High School market, it's been a tour, a non-Equity tour, Broadway, all of that stuff, and this is the complete reverse. It started amateur and now is working its way up.

Are there any sort of regulations being placed on not allowing productions where or near the tour may be playing?

There are absolutely NO regulations regarding amateur and professional productions. There's a large number of repeat licenses that we're finding as well. It's usually a 3-5 year cycle even with the classics like The Music Man and Guys and Dolls before they want to do it again, but here they're wanting to do it immediately the next year and we're letting them. As much as we can, were trying to drive people to Jeff's show and vice-versa so we're taking advantage of cross pollination.

What has collaborating with Disney been like on this?

They've been amazing. The Disney Channel has been terrific about waiving royalties and giving freebies to shows and schools that can't afford it. They have a fund that The Disney Channel started to raise money for producers of limited means that don't have the money needed to do everything that they want to do. That's the Disney Channel by the way that's set up that fund, not Disney Theatrical. Disney Theatrical has given us instructions to not be strict about licensing fees. If they're poor inner-city schools that can't afford the going rate, our instructions are to bend the rate and to let them do the show. That's great.

That's fantastic, and a great way to keep the phenomena of the show going…

Many of these implications haven't been written about because no one knew when this aired in January 2006 what was going to happen with this. It's a phenomenon and you couldn't have defined, planned, predicted, or replicated this in any way. You couldn't have forced people into watching this, and what happened was young people discovering it and relating to the characters and identifying with them and they embraced it, and that's how it took off from there.

This show seems to be opening doors as well for getting young folks interested in theatre…

Absolutely. Every time a young person gets involved with collaborating on a show, and imagining and working on a musical, it opens up the door for them to want to do another show. It's a great thing for Disney, and I think that there will be a long ripple effect for kids who are going to do it in middle school, and will want to do and see more shows.

That's not just going to be great for Disney, it's also going to be great for musical theatre. It's a breakthrough for the older generation who've been worried that there's a graying of the audience. That's a sociological formula that you can't control, but this show is certainly getting more and younger audiences to appreciate live theatre and that's great.


Who then is the official 'producer' of the show?

Steve Fickinger, Vice President of Licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions is our official 'producer'.  Tom Schumacher told me when I first met him, that he wanted me to be the king of all things HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. That's when I started working with Steve, who's helmed and helped this show from the very beginning. He was the first person that said I think that there's a market for this for kids and he spearheaded the initiative.

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Steve Fickinger, Vice President of Licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions

Steve Fickinger and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL's
Arielle Jacobs (Gabriella) at Opening Night in Chicago

At Disney Theatricals when we came up with a script and score that we were happy with. We put it in a professional arena in a limited way, with high hopes that it might have an appeal for general audiences young and old. Jeff realized those expectations and surpassed them for us. His hand and his touch is all over the show and it wouldn't be the success that it is if Jeff hadn't been at the forefront without his direction, skill, heart, and pathos. 


Has Kenny Ortega, the film's director been involved at all?

Kenny Ortega came to our opening at the LaSalle Bank Theater (formerly the Shubert Theater) in Chicago last Wednesday, and he is the man behind it all. He is the one that recommended me for the ice show that he's producing, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE ICE SHOW, which is why I'm down here in Florida.

Has he been involved at all in the development process?

Not directly. We have a wonderful relationship and Kenny's been very supportive. It was great having him at the opening and he's been given me his blessing. I've got the utmost respect for him, and he's been a great collaborator. It was very daunting for me at first, as I told Kenny, to try to just not ruin it. I was most afraid of ruining this huge hit. When the houselights first went down at the beginning of the show in Atlanta, the crowds went crazy. They erupted like The Beatles were in the theatre! 

I started to sweat and get nervous because I thought that the reaction was clearly due to the aniticipation because of the success of the film, so what might the audience do when they realize that Zac Efron isn't going to come out? But, then by the end of the show, they were screaming twice as loud and were really engaged.

Was it a challenge to cast the show? How did you find a balance of professionals and performers that looked like high school students?

I cast everybody in the show.  We hired all professional Broadway actors who looked appropriate for the roles, just like I've done with Grease and other shows.

Was it a challenge to find them?

It's my favorite kind of show to cast, and I felt the same way when I was doing Grease. When you can give people their Equity cards and discover talent, it's truly one of my favorite things to do, so I relish it. There are a lot of young talented people out there, so the core was there. It's always difficult to find the absolute best, but we did.

I've been very lucky that way – Sutton Foster, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Eden Espinosa, I gave all three of those women their Equity cards and I'm just lucky that way to be in the right place at the right time. I think that both John Jeffrey Martin and Arielle Jacobs are going to be huge stars. Jeff's remarkable. I think he's going to be a superstar and Arielle is just so beautiful inside and out and a remarkable actress. I'm very excited to be able to watch both of their careers. I'll tell you that!

How was Lisa Stevens chosen to choreograph?

I can't take credit for that stroke of genius. She came with the package. She had done Bombay Dreams and I was nervous at first because I like to work with people that I know, but when I met her, I instantly liked her and saw her reel and I just can't imagine it being done any better. She's really captured the spirit of the film and added her own artistic genius that has fit the piece perfectly. It's really a pleasure to have worked with her. She's the "real deal."

How much leeway were you given from the film? What was that challenge like to approach?

I have to say that I only watched the film that one time late at night, and it was true with Grease and with Big River too; I avoided watching the source material. I'm nervous to do a shows that have had previous productions and expectations because you have to watch out for falling intro traps. I think that the real credit goes to (bookwriter) David Simpatico, who adapted the script for the stage.

Any word on future plans for the stage show aside from the national tour?

I'm going to the UK with Lisa in the winter to work on the UK tour, which kicks off in December, and then I'm told that it goes to Italy and to Spain with separate companies. I've not had this kind of experience before in the theatre. With my shows in the past, I'm happy if they stay in one theatre for a long time!

Speaking of past shows, what are your thoughts on Grease returning to Broadway?

I feel old. I can't believe that I'm old enough for them to be reviving a show that I already revived! That's been the first thought going through my head. I have to tell you that I'm grateful for the timing of this show, because I feel like HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL  is Grease for the 21st century, so it feels great to be doing a new show.

Will you be involved with the West End production of Grey Gardens, if it comes to pass?

I would hope to work on that as well, and would assume that Michael (Greif) and I would be doing that. I invited Michael to the show in Chicago last Wednesday. It was a great night - even Barack Obama's wife and kids were there which was thrilling. I would love to do Grey Gardens anywhere and everywhere that it plays.

Do you have anything else lined up past the ice show that you can tell us about?

At the moment, it's all HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. I'll also be doing a tour of White Christmas, which starts rehearsals on October 8th and will be doing a 10 city holiday tour later this year.

There are new projects with Disney that I'm very excited about, but I'm not at liberty to talk about. I'm just loving this relationship with Disney. I've been doing this a long time, and to find producers that are supportive like this is really exciting for me.  I have never gotten this kind of support, and it's such a well-oiled, top-notch machine, it's just been wonderful.

Glad to hear that – what can you tell us about the Ice Show? How theatrical will it be?

I'm directing the show, and again, I swear that I'm not just making this up, but I had never seen an ice show, so I don't know what they are supposed to look like. It's being presented by Kenny Ortega, and I said to Kenny – I don't know anything about ice shows, and he said, "Good – just put on a show for us."

It's similar to my experience with Deaf West, because I didn't know how to work with deaf actors, or do a musical where half the actors were deaf and here I didn't know how to do an ice show. We're just taking it one day at a time, and one challenge at a time and I'm hoping it'll be an original evening of theatre. I've only finished one week of it so far so I don't know exactly what it's going to look like. It'll hopefully be a fabulous musical - on blades!

It's different because it's a whole new venue, and you're going to actually see both HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 1 and 2. Act 1 is HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, and Act 2 is HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2. Not only am I doing 2 different shows at one time, but 3 different companies at once - 2 are domestic and one's going to Argentina.

How are you fitting all that material in?

It had to be condensed, so it's the "Readers Digest version." Similar to shows as they go to Vegas, it's been reduced down to 90 minutes. It's really a roller coaster ride from song to song, along with amazing ice choreography, so it's pretty amazing.

Congrats on all the success so far, and we look forward to following the show's (and your) continued success on! Any closing thoughts?

I've been thinking lately about how eclectic my career has been – going from the Will Roger Follies to a Deaf musical (Big River) to Brooklyn, to Grease and now to this new phenomenon. I love how eclectic my career has been and hope that it always will be.  

I'm sure that it'll continue to be so, and hopefully we'll see you back in NY soon as well.

I am talking to the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization about trying to really find a successful incarnation of Easter Parade. It  would be Noah Racey starring and choreographing the show and I'd direct it and I'm very excited about that. Fingers are crossed!

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"The wide eyes and wider smiles on the faces of exuberant tweens and teens proclaimed “HSM” a hit, and the response from enthusiastic parents (including Michelle Obama who attended with her two children) confirmed it."

" surpasses its TV counterpart, thanks to Jeff Calhoun’s astute, fluid direction; Lisa Stevens’ contemporary, athletic choreography; Kenneth Foy’s bright, comic book-inspired set (note the magnified Benday dots) and a dynamic, immensely likable, attractive cast led by the winning duo of John Jeffrey Martin and Arielle Jacobs."
The Daily Herald

"Really, the success flows from Calhoun's savvy staging—and choreographer Lisa Stevens' laudable willingness to restrict herself to a high-school vocabulary offering veracity along with flash. "
The Chicago Tribune

"'High School Musical' won me over through the sheer speed, versatility, polish and outsized charm of its almost entirely young, attractive, wildly committed, 34-person cast."
The Chicago Sun-Times

"With children embracing a show such as this, the future of musical theatre, nay, maybe even  humanity itself, may just well be in good hands. "

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