It’s hard to believe High School Musical hit our screens fifteen years ago this year, its arrival on the Disney Channel a defining point in the modern TV movie and the career of one Mr Zac Efron. Since High School Musical, Efron’s career has seen more than a few surprise hits and several disastrous misses (let’s not even talk about Baywatch!). So, let’s get our head in the game and explore Zac Efron’s first three major films in celebration of this momentous occasion. In this Spotlight Classic Special, we look back at Zac’s journey from East High to Orson Wells.
High School Musical (2006)
Zac’s career began long before High School Musical in minor TV roles, but East High would launch him into the stratosphere. High School Musical remains the ultimate guilty pleasure for many people, its view of a wholesome Americana full of optimism and toe-tapping numbers. Its music and performances are as comforting as a slice of homemade apple pie and cream. However, High School Musical also changed the landscape of film and TV.
By the 1990s, the classic live-action musical had fallen out of favour. Even Disney’s 1992 movie musical Newsies would suffer a humiliating box office defeat at the hands of a filmgoing public interested in thrillers and action adventure. However, just as all hope seemed lost, the musical would find a rebirth in the world of animation through The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. However, despite these animated gems, the live-action musical remained shrouded in fog until 2001, when director Baz Luhrmann lit the fuse of a sleeping giant.
Luhrmann’s reinvention of the live-action musical was Moulin Rouge, a movie that laced the classic MGM movie musical with a fresh, bold, loud and energetic mash-up of pop classics. Moulin Rouge would fire the starting gun for a whole new batch of musicals on screen. But, despite its success, the new movie musical remained a rather adult affair until a small Disney Channel movie made the musical cool for kids once more. The idea behind this low-budget Disney Channel original was simple. It would mix the feel-good music of Disney’s animated world with the pizazz of Grease.
The man charged with making this a reality was Kenny Ortega, who had brought us Newsies and Hocus Pocus, neither of which had struck box office gold. However, Ortega was also the choreographer behind Dirty Dancing and many music videos. When his talent for dance and direction dovetailed with a vibrant young cast, High School Musical sprung into life.
Without High School Musical, the live-action movie musical aimed at kids and teens, may have never made the defiant comeback it would go on to achieve, and TV shows like Glee may have never found a voice on mainstream channels like Fox. However, its biggest claim to fame would come from its place as a TV movie. Here Kenny Ortega’s film proved that TV could rival cinema, its arrival foreshadowing the success of streaming juggernauts like Netflix, Prime and Disney +. Love it or loathe it, the impact of High School Musical surrounds the modern landscape of musicals, tv shows and high school drama.
High School Musical would spawn two sequels before the cast moved on to new pastures. However, for Zac, this Disney Channel gem marked his swift rise to stardom. But, while giving Zac opportunities beyond his wildest dreams, escaping Troy Bolton would prove far more challenging in the film choices available, with Efron’s first non-Disney roles crucial in building a career away from East High.
Watch now on Disney +
How do you follow the success of High School Musical while carving out a career in broader cinema? This was the challenge facing Zac Efron in 2007 and 2008, but Efron would rise to that challenge with two inspired film choices that would seal his place as a future leading man.
Based on the edgy John Waters 1988 movie, the 2007 film version of the stage show Hairspray buzzed with energy, humour and joy. Here the movie’s impressive cast was surrounded by colourful cinematography, rich sound design and a stellar body of music. Zac Efron would take the role of Link Larkin, a narcissistic dancer and singer on The Corny Collins Show who falls head over heels in love on meeting the vibrant Tracy Turnblad. Here Efron not only owned the role of Link but managed to dovetail his love of musical theatre with his passion for comedy, a genre he would return to more than once in his career.
Hairspray allowed Zac to work alongside a host of Hollywood royalty, from John Travolta to Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. While he may not have held top billing, Hairspray formally announced Efron’s arrival in Hollywood. But it also demonstrated that Efron was willing to play roles where he shared the screen; this is important for several reasons. After all, following High School Musical, he could have attempted to move straight into a leading man role due to his popularity, but he didn’t. Instead, Efron would opt to take roles that were part of an ensemble, allowing him to learn his craft with others. In many ways, Zac has maintained this rule throughout his career.
Adam Shankman’s Hairspray remains a movie of pure fun and joy, its core messages on race, belonging, and difference layered with bright colours and a banging score. Hairspray is a rare modern film musical that encourages the audience to dance around the auditorium with glee while never losing its core social message in all the glitter.
Watch now on Amazon Prime
Me and Orson Wells (2008)
Following the success of High School Musical and Hairspray, most people expected a further musical outing from Efron. Therefore his choice came as somewhat of a surprise as he opted for a medium budget historical romantic drama. However, his choice would prove career-defining in allowing him to step from the shadow of Troy Bolton. Here, Efron would work alongside the legendary director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) in a superb and highly underrated film that explored the smoke and mirrors of theatre and the defiantly bullish creativity of Orson Welles.
Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel Me and Orson Welles, Linklater tells the story of Welles’ infamous stage production of Ceaser in 1937. Here, we see the play’s journey from rehearsals to opening night through the eyes of a 17-year-old aspiring actor, Richard Samuels (Efron). Samuels finds himself thrust into the limelight after a chance encounter with Orson Welles outside the Mercury Theatre, New York, with the brash and bold Welles (Christian McKay) taking Richard under his wing. However, Welles’ motives are far from charitable as he uses Richard’s youth and beauty to further his romantic wishes while developing his famed anti-fascist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser.
READ MORE: RIVER PHOENIX
Me and Orson Welles is wrapped in the artistry and emotion of theatre production, each scene a love letter to the power of live performance in challenging social norms and ideas. Here the ambition, bustle and force of 1930s New York are brought to life on screen through a host of surprising locations, including London and the Isle of Mann. The resulting film earned rave reviews on its release; however, it remains one of the least discussed Efron pictures. Some of the reasons for this are clear in the reviews on its release. Many of these reviews singled out that the film’s brilliance was held in the hands of Christian McKay’s Welles, with few commenting on Zac Efron’s delicate and assured performance.
The reviews only highlight the challenge for any young actor in moving beyond their teen idol status. Here, young heartthrobs find their performance sidelined, with critics often favouring the senior actors around them while debating the young star’s talent. This, in turn, creates a no-win scenario for many young stars as they attempt to expand.
In truth, while McKay’s performance is stunning, complex and engaging, Efron’s is equally as assured. Here, while Zac maintains his teenage swagger, his character’s slow realisation that theatre is a cutthroat environment is superb. But even more impressive is Efron’s ability to hold his own against McKay’s formidable Welles.
Despite the lack of focus on Efron within the critical reviews, Me and Orson Welles remains the single-most defining film of Zac’s early career. Here Efron proved that he could take on drama alongside his trademark comedy and musicals. Following Me and Orson Welles, Efron would move back into comedy with the highly underrated 17 Again. In just three years, he had proved his talent and earned his place in Hollywood for many years to come through his movie choices.
Watch now on Amazon Prime