When 'High School Musical 2' Made Theater Kids Cool

Ten years ago this week, a non-sensical television musical about a country club talent show changed teenage theater kids in America forever.

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Aug 16 2017, 5:04pm

Photo by Patrick Riviere / Getty Staff

This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.

"The theatre kids always sang in [high] school, but after that, when people saw musical theater kids singing, it was an easier frame of reference for normal people." Ariel Kline, a current PhD student who was a theater girl in high school, remembers the aftermath of High School Musical 2 (HSM2). Over 18 million fans watched the premiere when it debuted ten years ago this week, a world record for a cable show (for context, 7.7 million watched the debut of the original, 16 million viewers tuned in for Game of Thrones's most recent season premiere), and the Disney Channel Original Movie became a unifying phenomenon that elevated musical theater kids, previously the punching bags of American academia, from lame to cool.

Watching HSM2 today, the universal teenage appeal seems strange. When we typically think of teens, they embody a frightening and distant coolness: They watch different YouTubers instead of Hannah Montana, they huff Whip-Its in parking lots, they adore endless dangerous activities because their brains are not yet fully developed.

HSM2 lacks all these traits. Songs like "Bet On It" and "Gotta Go My Own Way" sound more like mid-aughts Miley Cyrus songs geared toward seven-year-olds than the 50 Cent songs dominating radio at the time, or even traditional Broadway numbers. The pop performances occur because it's the summer, and Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and his East High School friends are taking summer jobs at Lava Springs, a country club in the New Mexico desert that caters to the family of Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale).

A teenage Paris Hilton-type named after a breed of purebred dogs, Sharpay grew incensed in the first HSM after Troy and his his girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) scored the roles that Sharpay and her brother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), desired. To get revenge, she decides to host a country club talent show. When she hears that Troy and company are planning to star in their own program, she vows to steal Troy for her musical revue. Fights—set to pop music, of course—ensue, until everyone agrees to sing in one performance.

The plot is more like The Muppet Movie than American Pie, but the soundtrack proliferated American hallways. While attending a private high school with a large arts department in 2007, I sharply remember girls belting "Fabulous," Sharpay's "I want" song up and down the hallways of my high school.

"Breaking Free," the love duet from the first High School Musical, served as a slow dance song at several quinceañeras I attended. (Typically, it was also accompanied by the birthday girl screaming, "This is just a joke!" before singing the entire song word for word.)

Read more: Spencer Pratt Reflects on His Iconic Feud with Lauren Conrad, Ten Years Later

"The High School Musical series made it more accepting to 'be a theater kid' and not feel like as much of a weirdo," recalls Adam Glickman, who was a theater student in the mid-aughts. Kline also notes: " High School Musical 2 brought in randos [to musical theatre programs], like people who hadn't been thespians before."

At one party at a McMansion in my town, I remember a shirtless boy with swooping, black hair performing one of Efron's songs on a faux marble pool deck. I never had identified him as a theatre kid. He claimed he was kidding, but still insisted everyone film him on their Sidekick camera phones.

One of the most popular songs to lip-synch at the time was Efron's big number, "Bet On It." It occurs midway through the movie when Troy temporarily agrees to perform in Sharpay's show. His girlfriend, Gabriella, learns of his choice and dumps him (through her own solo called "Gotta Go My Own Way"). To a beat reminiscent of a late 1990s NSYNC song, Troy stomps across a golf course ranting about Gabriella and Sharpay. "Everybody's always trying to get in my head," he laments." "I wanna listen to my own heart talking / I need to count on myself instead." He crouches, snaps his fingers, and pirouettes across the manicured lawn until he reaches a dune, where he collapses. Like Madonna purring "Like a Virgin" at the MTV Video Music Awards, Troy rolls around on the desert ground to the music. He picks up the sand and flicks it in the air. "Bet on it!" he belts. "Bet on it! Bet on it! Bet on it!"

Efron does all this with the conviction of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. His performance, like all the others in the TV movie, lacks self-awareness, but the combination of the catchy pop hook of "Bet On It" and Efron's earnest seriousness elevates Troy into a compelling protagonist.

HSM2 changed the image of theater kids' image and inspired other teens to join their ranks because it offered poppy songs and an earnest plot line. It was the opposite of what teens actually deal with on a daily basis, like the pains of puberty, intense insecurity, and first-time dating disasters. HSM2 was the antithesis of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton's controversial behavior, but like 2007's chaos girls, it offered teens a means to escape reality.

"We pretended to love it ironically, but we actually genuinely loved it," Alex Mann, another former theatre kid, reminisces. "It was what we wanted our high school experience to be."