How 'High School Musical' Broke Records & Boundaries: 'It Felt Like an Opportunity to Change Culture'
In honor of the third film's 10th anniversary, actors Monique Coleman and Lucas Grabeel look back
Before Glee, Pitch Perfect and even Hannah Montana, Disney helped bring musicals to the mainstream with a made-for-TV movie called High School Musical. The story of classmates from different backgrounds coming together to create a school production captivated young people -- and plenty of adults -- around the world, resulting in two sequels, 19 Billboard Hot 100 hits and album sales of nearly 10 million copies for the entire series.
But those figures and milestones (along with the dolls, blankets and aisles of other merchandise the series spawned) were just part of what made High School Musical a phenomenon. The twists on usual teen stereotypes -- a star basketball player who sings, a skateboarder who plays the cello -- broke boundaries as much as the series broke records, its stars say.
In honor of the third film’s 10-year anniversary, Lucas Grabeel, who played the flamboyant and musical-savvy Ryan Evans, and Monique Coleman, who played the whip-smart valedictorian Taylor McKessie, tell Billboard about the show’s legacy, what their characters represent to the LGBTQ and black communities and how they still keep in touch with their castmates.
Once you started filming the first movie, did you have a sense of what High School Musical would become?
Coleman: I was excited. I was like, "If I'm going to play 16 again, I want it to at least be a swan song to 16." I didn't understand or realize on what scale that would be -- we had no way of knowing that it was going to become a sensation, that was going to really stand the test of time. But it felt like it was special. There hadn't been an original musical in so long, and [it was] something that represented so many different people. It felt like an opportunity to change culture.
Grabeel: I was definitely the skeptic in the group. Kenny has such a beautiful way of inspiring people on set. He would say things like, “Guys, we're in this together. This is going on film forever ... We know the choreography. Forget about the dance moves -- dance with your heart and try to reach through the camera and touch the hearts of children, families and people.” It was things like that that made us ready to do it.
Coleman: We were filming "[Stick to the] Status Quo," and I sitting behind Kenny looking at the monitor -- it felt watching Fame for the first time. It was giving me all the feels. I walked up to everyone like "You guys, you have no idea. You're really creating magic. I'm sure you're exhausted and your bodies probably hurt, but this is the moment to give it everything you have."
Grabeel: We knew it was cool and special, we didn't think it was 1 billion dollars special. We were like, “It'll be a really successful movie, and we hope to like the music.” After the movie came out it was like “Oh, it's doing even better. Oh, we're going to the Today show. Oh, we're at the top of iTunes.” Every day was a new thing. It was funny because, I lived in a moldy, nasty apartment, and I’d tell my friends hanging out in my dingy apartment: “I guess I'm doing this segment on Good Morning America.” It was a big change for us.
Monique, you worked closely with Corbin Bleu, as your characters dated. Lucas, you and Ashley Tisdale played siblings. What were your first impressions of your costars?
Coleman: We were nine years apart in real life -- he was 15 -- so he was a kid to me. He was this cute little nugget. But we had chemistry immediately. It's not an illusion. I just thought he was such a sweet person, and he still is. Of all of the people in High School Musical, if there's a question, "Who is the nicest?" It’s Corbin.
Grabeel: I remember auditioning with Ashley and hating her because she wanted to rehearse a lot. I was like, “Look, I don't want to socialize much, I just want to work on my own thing, I came prepared.” But we ran through the scene together outside, and she gave me notes in true Sharpay fashion. I was like, “Who is this girl telling me how to do my own audition?”
[At the audition] she was like, “My mom drives me everywhere,” and I was like “I'm from a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere and was doing my family's laundry at 7 years old, so I drove out here by myself.” The juxtaposition [between us] was pretty crazy -- learning all of that just kinda put everything in perspective for me. But after doing three movies, two tours, countless international travels, parties, interviews and roundtables, Ashley is a sister to me. I love her. We are like family. We are a lot like Ryan and Sharpay.
What did your roles mean to you?
Coleman: It was really important to me because, at that time, there weren't really any other African-American girls on the Disney Channel, except for Raven. There also weren't African-American female characters like Taylor. The idea that I could portray a character that anyone could see and say, "Yeah, a black girl can be the smartest girl in school. She doesn't always have to be sassy” -- that was part of what really drew me to it.
Grabeel: [I love] when I hear someone tell me a story like, “I really wanted to be in a musical when I was a kid, but everyone thought that that was dumb or nerdy, and after High School Musical that changed. Because of that movie, I got to go out and pursue my dream and be accepted for what I like.”
Now, Ryan is not officially gay in any of the movies, but I think anyone that watches him can identify with who he was in high school: someone trying to figure it out. And I have young men in high school come up to me saying that, thought it's hard to talk about their sexuality, seeing that kind of character represented in a good light and a fun way was really helpful to them. To have something like that represented in a Disney, G-rated movie at that time was special, and however over the top Ryan may have been at times, I've been told that it helped.
Coleman: Disney has always done an incredible job of pushing boundaries and breaking down stereotypes and telling different stories that actually represent people. I think the cast of High School Musical represents that on a large scale.
In addition to breaking down stereotypes, High School Musical also broke records. It becoming the first made-for-TV movie soundtrack to top the Billboard 200 albums chart, and it produced 19 Hot 100 entries.
Grabeel: There was a time where I had to get over the fact that I thought High School Musical was responsible for ruining part of the music industry, because we were the No. 1 selling album in the world in 2006 and in 2007. We opened the door for Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, for Hannah Montana. I mean, there's always been child stars, but c'mon, -- it was like a rash of bad pop music that took over the airways, and I don't think we fully recovered.
Coleman: It’s just an indicator of how powerful young people are when they care about something. I feel like that was what the chart-topping represented. Young people are powerful -- and the music was great!
Grabeel: I’m lucky to be part of it. It was truly a magical, weird phenomenon, so what can you do but accept it, love it, laugh about it and say, “Yeah it sucked, but it was also amazing”?
The third movie was the only one in the series to get a theatrical release. Did anything else about making that film feel different?
Coleman: The second movie, I just was a little reckless. I had gained like 20 pounds, and I acted out after having a lack of self esteem. Also, Taylor didn't really have a purpose [in that one]. I was just kind of there, hanging out. So [for the third movie], I purposely changed my look. I wanted Taylor to have a bob and be super cute. Like, it's senior year, and she got it together. I was like, "I'm not going to be the second-rate character anymore."
Grabeel: I had four days between coming home from San Francisco shooting Milk before I started recording the songs for the third movie in LA. I had just taken master classes from Sean Penn, and my goal was, “I'm gonna still make a Disney movie, but I'm going to apply all of the things I learned to this and be the best Ryan I can be.”
Coleman: By that time, we had gotten so much better at everything. We could pick up dances so much faster. We could do everything so much faster. By the time we got to the third one, we were all just a lot more mature and together.
What was the last day on the set of High School Musical: Senior Year like?
Grabeel: Just a sob fest. At the end, we come out, and then a giant curtain closes. So symbolic, but so real. We all felt that that page turning and that book closing with the curtain coming.
Coleman: We were all standing on stage, and Kenny said to us, "I want you to look out on this empty theater, and I want you to think about what High School Musical has meant to you."
Grabeel: They brought on these younger kids in the third movie, and we knew that we were done. Like, “There’s gonna be High School Musical 4, but it'll be about these kids.” It was bittersweet. It was so much work -- those three years were a nonstop train. There was always some interview, photo shoot, event, red carpet or premiere. We were just flying all over the world. I don't know how we didn't just combust. [Laughs] I'm happy it's over, but every day I get further away from that experience I get more perspective on it. I respect it and cherish it more and more.
What did you take away from being a part of High School Musical, and how has it influenced your career going forward?
Grabeel: What I learned the most was about dancing. I've grown up doing choreography, but I think after the third movie I could call myself a dancer. I thought dance was an accompaniment to the singing and acting, and I didn't think of it as a beautiful storytelling art form. Now I see it so much more as a form of expression.
And I always try to get music in somewhere with my projects. After I was cast in Switched at Birth, they changed the character to be a musician, so I got to play and write some songs for the show. I’m in an adaptation of Little Women that’s in theaters now, and I got to perform an original song in the movie because I play a musician, and then I also wrote the theme song for the movie.
Coleman: When we were performing in front of 80,000 people in Mexico City, that was the loneliest day I had ever had. I went under the stage and just bawled my eyes out, [even] as I could hear all of the kids screaming at the top of their lungs. It revealed the need for something grounding, whether that be your family or some sort of connection to your purpose.
I had this moment where I realized fame was never going to fill the spaces in me that I was hoping for. I didn't know if I'd ever go back [to acting]. I thought maybe I'd be a diplomat or an ambassador or something. So I started GimmeMo’ -- a 26-episode docu-series covering bullying, self-esteem, body positivity, the #MeToo movement, The Dream Act, homelessness -- to empower, inspire and motivate young people. I wanted to give back to the young people that had basically made us famous by letting them know that it wasn't because we were more special or talented -- your dreams are possible as well.
I think I've always known my passion, but what [High School Musical] gave me was the platform to actually do it on the scale that would be meaningful. So when I show up at your school, it's not just some motivational speaker showing up, it's Taylor fucking McKessie coming to tell you that you can do it.
It’s wonderful to hear about the impact the series has had on both of your careers. Whom do you still keep in touch with from the cast
Coleman: Corbin and I are close. Olesya [Rulin, who played Kelsi Nielsen in HSM] and I spend a lot of time together. I've stayed at Kaycee’s [Stroh, who played Martha Cox] house when I've gone to Sundance. And I love Lucas so much. He invites me to his shows, and I always try to go, and then something comes up. He literally texted me two weeks ago and was like, "Is this even still your number?" I have not responded, so I feel like an asshole. [Laughs.]
Ashley and Vanessa, there's always love. I went to Ashley’s wedding. We're always going to be in each other's lives. We're so supportive of each other. There's group texts that go around when something's going on. I did an episode of my show called "The Pressures of Fame" and talked to Ashley's mom and Corbin's dad about what it was like having famous kids and what advice they have for parents nowadays. Olesya was on the show [too].
Grabeel: Corbin and I are best buds, we talk a lot, I see him quite a bit too. Ashley and Vanessa, we talk -- I go to Vanessa's Halloween party every year, so I keep in touch with her. Zac, I don't see very often because he's Zac Efron. He's rarely in town and available, but I hung out with him a few times in New York when he was shooting The Greatest Showman.
Whenever we're together, it's great. It's kind of like the family thing, the true friendship thing -- time can pass, but you can just pick up right where you left off. Some of my best friends were crew members on some or all of the movies, and I see them every week. The family is always there.