x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A class act

High School Musical 2 premieres on the Dubai stage tomorrow. Young cast members and those behind the scenes talk about bringing the sequel to to life.

Cast members gather for a rehearsal before opening night at the Dubai Community Theater and Arts Centre.
Cast members gather for a rehearsal before opening night at the Dubai Community Theater and Arts Centre.

What do you mean you don't know who Zac Efron is? Or Vanessa Hudgens? They're only the lead pair from the biggest musical success in recent Disney history, High School Musical, which spawned High School Musical 2 and 3 and the upcoming High School Musical 4. All of these, along with an arena tour in the US, an ice tour, licences for the stage versions, CDs, books, video games, stationery, jewellery, dolls and even pyjamas. The three films have been watched by more than 400 million people worldwide, creating a juggernaut worth over $1 billion (Dh3.7 billion). It's a staggering success that has outstripped even the most ambitious dreams of Disney executives since it was screened on the Disney television channel in January 2006.

Last summer, Dubai joined in on the frenzy by holding a stage version at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre theatre. A project put together by the British-based theatre company Popular Productions (also responsible for recent Dubai productions of Annie and Woman in Black), it brought together a cast of more than 100 for a week of sell-out performances. The audience watched as the high school jock Troy Bolton struggled to combine his love for the new student and science geek Gabriella Montez with his love for basketball. They sang, they danced, they won the audience over so completely that the production was brought back in November, reuniting the majority of the cast. "We've seen a lot of shows," says Popular Productions' co-founder, Lucy Blakeman, who is also the show's producer, "but there was something different about this one. It was amazing."

Well, chuck a pompom in the air and raise your best high school cheer, because they're back tomorrow with Dubai's stage premiere of High School Musical 2. The story is charming, although as faithful to reality as one would expect a Disney tale to be. It opens on the eve of the summer holidays for the students of East High School in Albuquerque. Troy is fussing about finding a summer job and staying with Gabriella over the break. Happily, Sharpay, the rich girl of the school, gets Troy a job at her parents' country club, Lava Springs, because she has a crush on him. Unbeknown to her, Troy then manages to wangle not only a job for Gabriella but for several of his friends, too.

There ensues a battle of wits between the warring factions, culminating on the night of the club's talent show. The stage version has been slightly tweaked from the original film, which premiered in 2007. A few characters, such as Sharpay's parents, have been taken out. "There is a point where it would get ridiculous to have everybody involved on stage," says Blakeman, sitting in the Ductac lobby last week while young cast members twirled around her during a rehearsal break. "Our cast is 73, with 15 nationalities. The youngest is 11 and the oldest is 40, though most are aged between 15 and 18."

Auditions were held at the beginning of May, with approximately 520 hopefuls turning up for the gruelling process of callbacks. "We start with their singing and then whittle it down," says Blakeman, "and then dance and then we whittle it down again, and then they sing and dance and then act. Then we swap them around. We were firm that just because they were in it last year, it doesn't mean that they get to be in it again."

As it happens, last year's Troy and Gabriella are returning in the same roles. And in a case of life imitating art, Alexandra Dewar and Donovan Preston, both 18, have been dating for three years. Their on-screen counterparts, Efron and Hudgens, also started going out while filming. "When we were casting it we had no idea," laughs the show's director and Blakeman's business partner, John Payton. The show's four leads - Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay and her brother Ryan - emerge from the rehearsal room, where they have spent most of the past week and a half. They had acted at school before, but presumably they're all musical, too? "Not really," jokes Dewar. "I had danced before last year, but only little things." But they had all watched the films before? "Yep," the four say in cheery unison.

"The first one is a lot of fun," says Erik Brinkhorst, 17, who is playing Ryan. "That's why the kids went crazy for it. But with the second one it actually develops into a storyline." "In the first one, the songs are there just as songs. But with the second one, they tell you something; they have a purpose," agrees Preston. By the sequel, Disney was beginning to get an idea of the phenomenon that it had created. The premiere was watched by 18 million people on the Disney channel, making it the most-watched film it had ever screened. With High School Musical 3, Disney went even bigger - shooting a version for cinemas that was released last October. "For me personally, the second one's my favourite because with the third one it's obvious they've had a bigger budget; it's just massive," says Dewar.

Comparable to The Sound of Music, perhaps? "Grease, really," muses Blakeman. "It's been more successful than any of those," says Payton. "It's taken in a much wider community and audience. Disney terms them as the tweens." Also known as tweenagers, they're the youthful bracket that make up the majority of High School Musical's fan base, and now invest similar amounts of energy into the worship of other Disney interests such as the television series Hannah Montana and the musical trio the Jonas Brothers. Tweens are mostly aged between eight and 12. But, according to Payton, there's no strict age limit. "I know plenty of teenage girls who love High School Musical, and some boys too."

Ah yes, High School Musical is often talked about as having made Fred Astaire-like musical endeavours fashionable for gangly teenage boys. Were there more girls than boys at the auditions this year? "There always are," says Payton. "But we had a good contingent of 40-50 boys. That's quite strong for a musical audition." Did Brinkhorst and Preston, the two male leads, aim for such top roles in this production? "I just wanted to be in it," says Preston, who along with Dewar has just graduated from school in Dubai and is shortly going to drama school in London.

As the summer holidays have just begun for all students across the UAE, the staging of this production is particularly pertinent for both the audience and the cast. "They're really living the High School Musical thing," says Scott Marshall, the Dubai-based choreographer for this show. "All these guys are finishing school, so they can relate to it." Payton agrees: "It's that great feeling that we've all experienced. That great feeling of breaking up from school and not knowing what the next six weeks would hold but knowing that it would be fun."

In the corner of the lobby spinning around and practising is one of these happy students, Annie Margaret Halloran, 12, who is not only the show's youngest cheerleader but in all the lead dance routines. Halloran is clearly one of life's entertainers. She started dance classes when "three or four" back home in Australia, "but I only started taking up singing and acting when I was about 10", she adds seriously. It is a path she would love to continue with. "Lots of boys like football and rubgy, whereas I like acting, dancing and singing," she says, before adding quickly that more boys are joining the singing and dancing squad now, too.

Like many of the show's fans, Halloran's favourite character is Sharpay, who manages to endear herself to the audience despite her scheming. "She's an obnoxious witch, really," teases Payton, "but she always absolves herself at the end." The actress playing Sharpay, the 16-year-old Lucie Turner, muses that perhaps it's the outfits, as there's plenty of pink involved. And how are the lines? The four leads laugh. "They're great with lines," enthuses Payton. And the nerves and exhaustion? "Just now I feel my throat worn out but then you surprise yourself with what you do and the performances," says Dewar. Payton, a former actor, echoes her comments. "You see this eagerness in them, and it sounds like I'm being jaded, but I remember that's what it was like. Everybody has the right to experience that for the first time."

But he's a strict taskmaster, and, the break over, those in the Ductac lobby are ushered into the nearby rehearsal room. There is a problem with the air conditioning and everyone is told to drink plenty of bottled water so they can keep up with the dance steps. They're told to prepare for I Don't Dance, which is set on a baseball field. Several of the cast members stretch, several swing baseball bats with intent. "Quick as you can, please," bellows Payton. "I'll come round and check your positions." Nik Stoter, 40, who plays the resort manager and is the only adult in the cast, stands calmly in the middle of the throng. "It's depressing," he joked earlier. "You feel that you're youngish and then suddenly you're around a load of 12-year-olds."

According to the licence agreement for staging any production of High School Musical, the script and songs have to be adhered closely to. The result here is 12 high-energy, foot-tapping numbers. They were originally directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, whose CV lists not only all three High School Musical hits and Dirty Dancing, but also the creation of Michael Jackson's Dangerous and HIStory world tours. (He was also to work on Jackson's London comeback tour, This Is It, but will now direct a remake of Footloose, having ruled himself out of High School Musical 4.)

The cast leaps into the rehearsal, with the music director Philip Shute on the keyboard. The floor shakes and Payton stands on a chair to oversee his energetic charges and shout out instructions. "Follow it, follow it," he shouts as one cast member hits an imaginary baseball over their heads. They all dutifully watch the ball fly over the field. One assumes that given we're in the untroubled world of High School Musical, it's a home run.

High School Musical 2 runs at Ductac from tomorrow until July 18. For details and tickets, visit www.hsm2dubai.com or call the ticket line on 04 341 4777.